SF Students Get Leadership Education from the Great Outdoors

Photo courtesy of Outward Bound

Sometimes what it takes to get kids to learn abstract skills is to send them outdoors – at least that’s what San Francisco educators are finding as they send their students on trips through Outward Bound, an organization dedicated to getting kids outdoors.

For many city kids, suddenly up and leaving on a five-day backpacking trip is no joke. Josh Brankman, who heads Outward Bound, called education via nature “brutally authentic.”

Most Outward Bound participants come from low-income households and have not spent extended periods of time in nature.

“Their experience with the outdoors is usually much more parklike, more cultivated,” Brankman said.

Erin Hayes, a sixth grade humanities teacher at Thomas Edison Charter Academy, accompanied her students on a three-day trip.

“The idea of being without comforts that they’re so used to, toilets, showers, no deodorant, no cell phones for three days, was really scary for a lot of them,” Hayes said. “6th graders are 11 to 13 years old. For a lot of them, it’s the first time away from their families, which is something also scary.”

But it’s not just about taking away creature comforts. When students are thrown into situations where they have to take on responsibilities – keeping their friend from falling as they rock-climb, schlepping backpacks that rival them in size over miles of trails, planning meals for five days and overseeing the cooking, keeping a kayak from capsizing – they are nudged into leadership positions.

“Those types of natural challenges are the ones that, in group facilitation, we can talk about skills you learned and how can we transfer those back to home or school,” Brankman said.

“It’s not the dirt or the bugs that does it. It’s the being uncomfortable and being in a headspace that is foreign,” said Catherine Bradshaw, a facilitator for a program called SF Achievers, which supervises and encourages youths on their path to higher education.

Brankman said the academic structure of classroom instruction can make it tricky to get students to explore the more abstract skills that, while less widely discussed than reading and math, are just as important.

“It can be harder to teach those skills as explicitly in the classroom when you have competing academic pressure without the tools and opportunity that an Outward Bound class provides,” he said.

For most of the students who participate in Outward Bound, nature isn’t just unfamiliar and uncomfortable – it’s usually inaccessible. Outdoor activities require equipment, planning, and instructor time.

Brankman estimates roughly half of the program’s funding comes from charitable donations. Students may engage in fundraising to help finance their trip. Hayes at Thomas Edison said her students raised about $5,000 one year. Outward Bound also offsets some of its costs by offering its programs to students around the Bay Area whose families may be able to afford the full price.

With that model, though youth from around the Bay Area participate in trips, some 75 percent of participants are from San Francisco schools.

Bradshaw of SF Achievers estimated that most of her students come from Gateway High School and MIssion High, with roughly a third coming from the latter.

Julie Kessler, principal of San Francisco International High School, has seen the resulting change firsthand. The international school, where most students are recent immigrants from around the world, has a program in place dubbed “School Without Walls” that encourages exploration outside the classroom. Students may take electives that include sailing, exploring Mission murals, cooking and dance. Through Outward Bound, they are immersed in the outdoors for days at a time, and the effect, Kessler said, is significant.

“The students come back with so much more empathy and so much more care, so much more collaborative and leadership skills,” she said. “It’s just been such a game changer in their lives.”

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