Reflections on 30 Years of NYC Outward Bound Schools

By Richard Stopol, President & CEO, NYC Outward Bound Schools

In our early days, whenever I put New York City and Outward Bound in the same sentence, I was routinely greeted with a response that went something along these lines: “that’s an oxymoron.” To many, the pairing of Outward Bound and New York City seemed anomalous, jarring even. They associated Outward Bound with wilderness adventure, and the idea of bringing its approaches and activities to our City’s young people and especially into its public schools struck them as both far-fetched and counter-intuitive.

Students doing “Crew Expedition” at Sharpe Reservation; photo by Susie Kang

But the founders of our organization knew better. They knew that Outward Bound’s roots were in schools; that the founder of Outward Bound, Kurt Hahn, was a renowned European educator who started or inspired a number of schools and educational programs around the world.

And more than that, they knew that Outward Bound and New York City were, in fact, superbly matched, and that this city and its school system were where the lessons Outward Bound teaches were most needed and most likely to yield big benefits. As Dr. Thomas James, currently the Provost of Columbia Teachers College, wrote of our founders in a piece he authored three decades ago:

Their own experience has shown them that Outward Bound is not merely a sequence of adventures in wild and beautiful places. It is a form of learning that brings people together in highly energized sequences of challenge, cooperation and service. Outward Bound is designed to bring out the best in people through active learning, so that they will strive for a better life and defend human decency with all their will. Nothing could make more sense for New York City than to unleash such a form of learning on a much larger scale, particularly for the many young people at risk of losing heart and falling into destructive paths of life.

Thirty years of experience has shown just how right Tom and the visionaries who gave birth to us in 1987 were. Indeed, our experience has confirmed that we offer an approach to teaching and learning that has the power to, in the words of our organizational tagline, “transform schools and change lives.” We’ve now brought that approach to more than 100,000 young people from over 300 schools across the City. For the vast majority of those young people, involvement with us has been a source of profound learning, and for many, it has been transformational, helping them discover and put into practice the central lesson we teach: that with the right mix of challenge and support, every individual, regardless of background and circumstance, can achieve far more than s/he thought possible.

One of our signal accomplishments over these past 30 years is the establishment of a successful network of public schools that we operate in partnership with the City’s Department of Education. These schools, which feature our unique blend of demanding and engaging academics, character, and community, offer our best evidence of the transformational nature of our work.

In them, we see teachers who, with our support, are learning and applying student-centered practices that encourage independent, critical, thinking and that cultivate qualities such as perseverance, resilience, self-discipline, initiative, compassion, and empathy.

Hands-on learning

We see students who are deeply engaged in learning, discovering their own voices and passions, and building the foundation of knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors that is preparing them for success in college, careers and citizenship, as well as family and community life.

And we see schools that are serving as proof points for the proposition that an outstanding education — one that nourishes the mind, body and spirit — is accessible to all, irrespective of zip code.

The beauty of being 30 years old (although it is getting harder and harder for me to remember what being 30 felt like) is that your best days are still likely to be ahead of you. That is indisputably true for this organization. We find ourselves in a time when what we have to offer is needed more than ever. Clearly, there has never been a time when our educational approach has been more relevant or resonant. There has never been a time, for example, when our focus on creating communities that practice mutual respect and trust, and model collaboration and support is more important or needed. And there has never been a time when the kind of education we provide is more important or needed — — as a vehicle both for helping us to navigate, together, through these challenging, disruptive times and for ensuring that every child has the opportunity to realize his/her full potential and contribute to the making of a better country and world.

I’m not sure I will be around in 2047 to see the fruits of our next 30 years of work, but I am supremely confident that this organization will rise to the challenge by taking that work to even higher levels of impact and scale and by demonstrating even more compellingly and convincingly the power and necessity of what we do.

What these past 30 years have meant to me on a personal level is nicely summed up in a lovely sentence that David Brooks wrote in a column published recently in the NY Times: “all of life is a series of daring adventures from a secure base.” My tenure at NYC Outward Bound Schools has been nothing less than one long daring adventure, heading what started as an organization that at its outset was really nothing more than an untested, if inspired, idea for bringing Outward Bound to NYC’s young people and their public schools, and then helping to shepherd it into the thriving educational nonprofit it has become. It has been an amazing adventure, filled with unexpected twists and turns, along with never-ending opportunities for new learning, and countless moments of deep gratification.

But as the Brooks quote makes clear, that adventure would not have been possible without the secure base from which it was launched and sustained. That base is in the form of all the people who have supported me every step of the way. Having begun this adventure as an untested executive director myself, I have spent 30 years being belayed and buoyed by the people around me, the colleagues who have put their faith in me, provided me with guidance and wisdom, treated me with generosity and kindness, forgiven me when I’ve made mistakes, and helped to bring out the best in me. I am forever grateful to everyone who has helped to give me such a secure base from which to undertake this great adventure.

As we head into the next phase of this adventure, we do so knowing that we’ve put to rest the idea that the partnering of New York City and Outward Bound is an oxymoron. To the contrary, it’s a coupling in which the two parties are tailor made for one another. We have 30 years of history that proves that and a future beckoning us which will only reinforce how extraordinarily well-matched that pairing is.

A happy 30th to everyone in the NYC Outward Bound Schools crew!