The events of the last six months have put a glaring spotlight on poverty and inequalities in opportunity that have been growing for decades. The pandemic is accelerating this trend.
Prior to COVID-19, with your help, Thompson Island Outward Bound had been working to increase opportunities for all Boston students to thrive outdoors and in the classroom by expanding our Connections program. In March, in year two of our growth plan, having just brought 1,600 Boston students to the Island in the prior school year, we were faced with a new reality: not being able to bring young people to the Island at all.
Our community has entered a period of intense innovation, as we strive to connect with students online and chart a path back to in person learning. Welcome to the beginning of that journey. We will need you in the months and years ahead.
The impacts of COVID-19 are falling disproportionately on black and brown communities. While people of color make up just over 50% of Boston’s population, they represent 75% of COVID-19 cases. Second order effects, such as food, job, and housing insecurity, follow the same pattern.
It is known that children need to be nurtured and challenged by caring adults in a variety of settings outside the home, and that some of the most important aspects of learning are acquired through social interactions. Coveted time on Thompson Island has long provided a holistic learning environment where social, emotional, and cognitive learning are combined and every child’s natural competence can emerge.
Today, our students are mostly learning in one setting: at home, separated from their teachers and classmates by a computer screen. Boston Public Schools reported that 1 in 5 students abandoned online learning last spring. This drop is due in large part to a technology gap (a recent McKinsey study indicates that students with low quality access to the internet stand to lose 7-10 months of learning this year), but also a lack of motivation.
Students need to engage with their peers, to know that they belong, and to feel like valued members of their school community. Online and remote learning systems, which are designed to reinforce academic learning, were never intended to foster holistic learning or deep relationships. As health and safety mandates make it impossible for organizations like us to serve kids in person this fall, our work this summer and into fall is to use Outward Bound’s time-tested model for student engagement in a newly developed virtual format to reach our students at home.
Last month, we held a virtual graduation ceremony for Green Ambassadors, our summer environmental jobs internship. Running the program was our first foray into convening, nurturing, and supporting young people entirely online.
Each day, GAs “circled up” in the morning and debriefed in the afternoon, with classic Outward Bound activities like icebreakers and team builders and lessons from National Parks Service staff in between. Tools and supplies were delivered so GAs could complete hands-on sustainability projects safely at home. For their final project, GAs learned GIS software to create an online story map of inclusive city green spaces. According to one student: “I didn’t think it was going to be exciting, but teamwork makes the dream work. Communication was how we got things done.”
With early success under our belts, we turn our eyes to an utterly unprecedented school “reopening” this fall, the magnitude of which cannot be underestimated. Our organization stands ready to offer our newfound capability to use Outward Bound’s core values of compassion, service, teamwork, and resilience virtually to help our schools increase capacity, and our students cultivate what is best and strongest within themselves.
Even as we shift our focus online, bringing kids back to the Island remains our compass. We are actively in conversation with Boston’s Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and her staff about our shared vision for how outdoor and out-of-school youth development can play an even larger role in the Boston K-12 system in the future. But it will not be easy. We are in a marathon, not a sprint. We will need patience and perseverance.
Thank you for your perseverance, your confidence, and your support through these challenging times. As our fee-for-service programs and events revenue for 2020 disappeared, we were bolstered by a surge of philanthropic support that allowed us to continue to serve students and build a foundation for powerful online engagement.
This is an extremely difficult time for anyone who cares about kids and their primal need to be together, play together, and learn together. Our schools and families need us today, and they will most certainly need the Island when we get to the other side. Together we can create an educational system that is more equitable than the one that has been shattered by the pandemic.
As Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn said, “Your disability is your opportunity.” This crisis is an opportunity. Let’s seize the day. Thank you for supporting our mission.
Arthur Pearson, President & CEO