Learning by doing.

Nearly 200 years ago, a group of concerned Boston citizens established a unique educational institution on Thompson Island. Since then, the island has served continuously as the site of innovative programs that have profoundly influenced the lives of many young people and American education. For a complete history of Thompson Island’s education programs, download Learning by Doing.


David Thompson establishes a trading post to barter with Neponset Indians. Over the next 200 years, farmers lease the island to graze sheep.


The Boston Farm School is established by a group of Boston philanthropists who purchase Thompson Island to instruct young, at-risk boys (principally orphans or boys with single parents) in “agriculture, gardening, or other useful occupations as would contribute to their maintenance and tend to form in them habits of industry and order.” The inaugural class of 14 boys lives first in the old Farmhouse and in the fall of 1833 they move to the newly constructed school building.


The Boston Asylum for Indigent Boys, an orphanage in the North End, merges with the Farm School. Renamed the Boston Asylum and Farm School for Indigent Boys, the school serves approximately 70 boys aged 5 to 11, who divide their time between farm work, study, play, and chores.

1830s to 1930s

The addition of various farm structures is an indication of the development of an extensive farming program designed to both sustain the school community and prepare young men for useful occupation: stock barn 1861, orchard expansion 1862, hen houses 1885, corn crib 1887, root cellar and hot beds 1903, compost shed 1906, new cow barn 1927, new poultry house 1929, chicken hatchery 1931.


Superintendent William Morse overhears a group of students entertaining themselves by singing and creating a makeshift “orchestra.” He purchases a small collection of instruments and establishes the first school band in America. Six alumni go on to become members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


The new Industrial Building, named for Board President George Augustus Gardner, is built to house carpentry, printing, blacksmithing, and paint shops. These trades are added to the curriculum in keeping with changes of the Industrial Revolution. Students perform jobs for the school as well as for mainland clients.


Applying the skills they learned in the woodworking shop, the boys build 12 small playhouses and dub the community “Cottage Row.” They create their own government, including elected officials, town meetings, and a justice system. It is one of the first civic education programs in America.

Circa 1900

As the industrial program evolves, the boys start a newspaper, The Beacon, which records details of island life. School enrollment hovers around 100 and accommodates boys aged 10 to 14. Electricity, telephone, and water systems are installed, and the boys run a weather observatory—collecting, recording and telephoning data to the U.S. Weather Bureau.


The school is renamed The Boston Farm and Trades School.


The school embarks on an ambitious campus expansion to improve accommodations, adding new dorms, kitchen and dining facilities, and staff housing: Headmasters House 1936, Bowditch Hall 1939, and three dormitories 1941.


The school becomes a six-year secondary school and is renamed Thompson Academy. The farm program is significantly reduced. Students begin wearing coats and ties. Thompson Academy becomes renowned for its broad athletic program and the Gymnasium is constructed in 1960.


The destruction of the main building by fire in 1971 adds to the school’s challenges, and the Board decides to graduate Thompson Academy’s final class in 1975. Under the new name of Thompson Island Education Center, the island hosts short-term educational trips to complement Boston Public Schools’ curriculum. Female students are welcomed for the first time. The programs combine elements of two educational movements—Outward Bound experiential learning and environmental education—with ropes course, initiative challenges, and explorations of the natural habitats of the island.


The island’s Board of Trustees selects Outward Bound as a partner to operate the island, creating Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center. The island continues its mission to serve underprivileged Boston youth with programs that instill teamwork, self-confidence and compassion, and that encourage learning-by-doing.


Connecting with Courage, a two-week Outward Bound expedition for adolescent girls, is created based on research by Dr. Carol Gilligan and others. This becomes the model for other summer expedition programs, including Passages for boys, Intercept for at-risk youth, and Environmental Expeditions.


Thompson Island Outward Bound opens an independent middle school for boys, called The Hynes-Willauer School. During its 12 years of operation, the school incorporates Outward Bound expeditions and an Expeditionary Learning curriculum. The school closes in 2006.


The Boston Harbor Islands, including Thompson Island, are designated a National Park Area.


Thompson Island Outward Bound launches Choices, a school-based program that delivers week-long expeditions on Thompson Island for Boston Public School students and teachers at the middle school level. Over the next decade, the program serves thousands of middle school students from over a dozen schools with activities that develop confidence, motivation, compassion, problem solving and conflict resolution skills, and which instill a commitment to diversity and social justice.


Environmental education re-emerges as an opportunity to use the island to directly support academic learning. In response to requests from schools and school districts, curriculum-based activities are developed using the islands habitats and landforms. Thompson Island Outward Bound begins partnering with the National Park Service to develop and deliver these programs, and to link student activities to research and stewardship projects sponsored by the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area.


The island’s trustees formalize their commitment to integrate character and leadership development with curriculum-based environmental education, and Thompson Island is designated by the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership to be the locus of all youth education programs within the Boston Harbor Islands National Park area. Harbor Connections, a longstanding curriculum-based program, is absorbed into Thompson Island Outward Bound and the organization begins developing activities that are tied to Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks in science and math. Special attention is given to supporting critical learning objectives of Boston Public Schools in grades 5–8. By 2013 more than 20,000 students from 50 schools in greater Boston have participated.