Imagine starting your day on a flophouse breadline, spending your morning visiting a Hasidic community, then taking a quick tour of the Waldorf Astoria before spending the afternoon begging for spare change in Grand Central Terminal. Oh, and don't forget about dinner at the Princeton Club.
Sound like a scene from a zany adventure film? For the 25 students at South Bronx High School who participated in this ''24-hour urban experience,'' the adventure proved to be both challenging and educational. These students were all part of Project Discovery, an ongoing experiential education project at South Bronx High School. Project Discovery, which started in November 1979, is one of several programs currently being offered by Urban Adventures, a small nonprofit service agency in New York City which is partially supported by the Edwin Gould Foundation. Urban Adventures seeks to provide both urban and wilderness experiences to inner-city adolescents and their teachers.
The 24-hour experience is one of Project Discovery's more innovative adventures. Each year the course is designed to fit the group's needs, keeping in mind both available resources and funding.
Unlike many of the Project Discovery adventures, which offer wilderness challenges such as whitewater canoeing and rock climbing, this particular adventure challenges students on their own turf. For 24 hours students explore New York City and its myriad life styles from the Battery to Brooklyn.
At a city shelter for bag ladies, high school junior Virginia De Los Santos was surprised to discover that, ''There was this one bag lady who thought she was too good to talk to me . . .'' Other bag ladies were eager to share their knitting and crochet projects with her, however.
When the students meandered in to explore the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, one group was kicked out almost immediately, while the other group ended up getting a personally guided tour. As program director John Allison pointed out, ''The kids learn an awful lot about how to approach people.''
To encourage meeting others, each student is given a hard-boiled egg and instructed to trade it for something in return. For instance, as students explored a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, one student was able to trade his egg for a tour of the local temple. Another student observed, ''You really learned not to judge a person by his religion or anything . . . everyone is unique.''
Project Dicsovery was born when several South Bronx teachers asked Urban Adventures to provide some urban and wilderness challenges which would provide positive reinforcement for their students, who seemed caught in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. The teachers' goals were (1) to foster self-confidence, (2) to encourage a sense of community, and (3) to provide a positive vision of the future.
Urban Adventures' energetic founder and executive director, Sister Maryann Hedaa, worked with the South Bronx teachers to create a program that combined curriculum objectives with adventure experiences. A former high school teacher, Sister Maryann was also a veteran of several Outward Bound programs and was eager to adapt its rugged self-reliance principles to youth in urban environments.
Thirty students, selected for their academic ability and leadership potential , were invited to join. Then, with a pilot grant from the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, Project Discovery was on its way.
Project Discovery students spend each morning in regular classes. Afternoons are spent in specially designed social studies, physical education, and science classes. Day trips and weekend adventures enhance the experiential aspects of the curriculum.
For the teachers, Project Discovery has provided a unique and creative way to approach learning. While skeptical at first, many have been won over and feel they are now equal participants in the learning process.
While there are no current statistics which document academic improvement, students feel that the program has had a positive effect on their schoolwork. Some students insist they have worked even harder than before. Studies done by the school principal show that last year Project Discovery students had a 92.6 percent attendance rate compared with an overall school attendance rate of 60-70 percent.
Project Discovery currently works with 100-120 young people each year. It would like to start similar programs at the junior high school and elementary level. For this year, Sister Maryann would like to see the New York City Board of Education increase its commitment to provide matching funds.
Urban Adventure, the parent organization, has recently begun working with hard-core juvenile offenders in the New York State Division for Youth facilities at Bushwick and Start Center 5. Here, trained Urban Adventures staffers have a chance to apply the same Project Discovery principles and challenges to urban youth in crisis. Urban Adventures is also working with the Youth Action Program in East Harlem to provide wilderness weekends to young people who are already in community-based programs.
Community response to Urban Adventures has been overwhelmingly supportive. In fact, Urban Adventures staff members have now begun a staff training project at South Brooklyn Community High School where teachers are eager to duplicate the Project Discovery program. Urban Adventures staffers are also working with a St. Louis group to design a model for leadership training.