Bronx students make mountains out of skyscrapers

When people hear "Outward Bound," images come to mind of kayaking in the Sea of Cortez or climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. They don't think of navigating the subway system of one of the world's largest cities or of improved reading skills.

Richard Stopol, executive director of the New York City Outward Bound Center, is used to people asking him exactly what Outward Bound is doing in an urban environment. Some call it an oxymoron. But he says the program's mission fits well with the needs and aspirations of inner-city kids.

"The drumbeat in American education is, 'We're going to raise the achievement level,' " Mr. Stopol says from the organization's offices in Long Island City, just over the East River, "whether it's getting to the top of the mountain, or moving to the next reading level."

What began as an experiment in 1987 to bring Outward Bound's activities to New York youths has evolved into several programs shaped around the organization's hands-on learning philosophy.

To date, program leaders have worked with more than 25,000 public school students and teachers from nearly 200 schools in New York City, offering teacher-training courses, summer literacy classes, and adventure programs such as sailing in Jamaica Bay and backpacking in the Catskills.

But the program's agenda also includes urban adventures that allow participants to immerse themselves in neighborhoods such as Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

As Outward Bound looked at these programs, however, staff members concluded that they needed to do more. They noticed that, while students from various schools went on potentially life-altering wilderness trips, the students then returned to the same school environment they had left.

Outward Bound officials realized if they wanted to make a bigger impact on New York schools, they would need to go beyond one-day trips - that they should bring all of their services to one school.

Last September, Outward Bound, using public and private money, opened a school in the Soundview neighborhood of the south Bronx. The Bronx Guild is part of the city's small-school initiative that began several years ago to replace each large, low-performing school with several smaller schools of 300 to 400 students each.

The idea is to have each school partner with a community organization in order to broaden the education to include students and their families, rather than just academics.

Bronx Guild, which has 77 ninth-graders and will add a new freshman class every autumn, is a school-within-a-school, located on the fourth floor of Adlai E. Stevenson High School - which has more than 3,000 students and where only 3 in 10 graduate, says deputy superintendent Eric Nadelstern, who works with the small schools in all of the Bronx.

Mr. Nadelstern recently looked at attendance figures for the two schools from the previous day, numbers he says are roughly average: Stevenson came in at 72 percent, Bronx Guild at 90 percent.

The last week in January, students at Bronx Guild presented what they had learned since the beginning of the year to their peers and teachers. The presentation is akin to activities in Outward Bound's standard wilderness courses, in which participants demonstrate what they've learned. Each student has 15 minutes to talk, and each then leaves the room to let the audience discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation before providing feedback.

Principal Michael Soguero says the presentations are as valuable as any instruction, although it's a new experience for many students, and their lack of eye contact, mumbling, and general stage fright show it.

On the last day of presentations, ninth-grader Travis Tirado stands by an overhead projector displaying a math test with a grade of 104. "Math is my favorite, because it used to be hard and now it's simpler," he says quietly.

He refers frequently to the Living Machine, a 2,000-gallon working wetland in the meeting area of the school that purifies gray water (waste water that contains soap, dirt, or organic matter) through fish and other organisms that naturally break down pollutants. The clean water goes into a tank used for hand-washing.

Later, Travis admits he was nervous when presenting, but says it still beats being at a huge high school and "getting lost" among all the students. "Because it's smaller here," Travis points out, "everyone gets their own special attention."

Starting in 10th grade, Bronx Guild students will start apprenticeships or internships in areas they are drawn to - which applies the theory of learning by doing. Mr. Soguero, who previously worked at the School for the Physical City in Manhattan, believes internships should not be reserved for the highest-achieving students, as is often the case.

Soguero says apprenticeships will be the vehicle for inspiring passion in students and getting them motivated about academics. As early as ninth grade, students venture into the community. Field-work may involve working on a community garden for science or interviewing residents of a neighborhood for English.

Academics, as well as student interests, are discussed frequently in "crew," which is the teacher-led group of about a dozen, to which each student belongs for the entire year. Crew meets every day after lunch, and topics range from school culture to the effects of gossip and family matters on students.

"These small groups are one of the guiding principles of these new small schools," Soguero says. "Some are called 'advisories' or 'family groups.' We call them crews, based on the metaphor that we're all crew, not just passengers."

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