…when have I ever really accomplished anything? School work is not an accomplishment. I never get appreciated or anything for what I do. Either I miss out or I’m completely overlooked. But how can that be when I seem to have so much to offer?”Journal entry 10/07/1997
It was Spring of 1997, the end of my Junior year of high school at Briarcliff High School in Westchester County, NY. In my own words (written almost a year later), “Throughout HS I was on the ‘fast track’–heading toward a senior year taking up to 5 AP courses and not looking forward to it.”
As a teenager, it felt like I was on a conveyer belt–being moved along with some forward momentum that was out of my control. Here is the next part of the quote above:
“Truthfully, I felt that if I continued on the same track, I would lose it and crumble. I knew this would happen because it started at the end of my junior year. This was why I applied to Walkabout. I knew this year would bring back my love of learning and challenge me in the areas where I needed and most of all WANTED to be challenged. Now, a whole school year later, I can’t even begin to describe how far I’ve come, how much I’ve achieved–not for my teachers, not for my parents, but for myself.” (Journal reflection 5/27/1998)
In my Junior year I applied to attend Walkabout, an alternative to Senior year that was focused on 5 challenge areas: Wilderness, Service Learning, Internship, Applied Academics and Presentation. To attend the program, I traveled to Yorktown, NY every day with a number of other students from different districts around Northern Westchester County. It was a leap of faith and a seeking for meaning and a change when it felt like high school had nothing left to offer me and had fallen short in what I needed and wanted. What I found was a diverse community of young people, many of whom had not found success in high school and were desperately seeking something new. Some were facing a future in which they might not graduate at all in a traditional senior year. We were all seekers—young people who knew that there had to be more to explore and learn before they left high school.
That year was life changing.
As part of the Wilderness part of the school, we spent an entire week together in the Catskill Mountains with nothing but 50 pound packs on our backs and built a foundation for the community we would be a part of that year while also building our confidence and challenging our idea of what we could accomplish.
“The Catskill trip–I was REALLY low on myself for part of the trip. I felt like I couldn’t do anything and I felt socially left out–like usual. Unfortunately, when I feel left out, I usually seclude myself more–but on the trip I think I got past that. I was able to climb up Windham and I felt very in charge of my own experience. On the Catskill trip I realized my physical abilities and my social abilities. I built self-confidence about my physical abilities and I built friendships.” (Journal reflection 5/27/1998)
Part of our year included a Service Learning project and an Internship. For both of these experiences we went to school once a week for 4 weeks and 6 weeks respectively and spent the rest of the week in the field, navigating the adult world. I completed my Service Learning project at Pace University’s Nature Center in Pleasantville, NY. As I reflected in May:
“Before Community Service, I was always unsure when given directions. I’d say “uh-huh” and then wonder whether I remembered the directions right–I would freak out. Notice, I didn’t ASK questions either. As a result of being given so many directions during C.S, I am much better at following them and having confidence that I am doing everything right…I’m not afraid to clarify so that I understand the directions fully.”
I completed my Internship at Gruner & Jahr Publishing Company in Manhattan and Vibe Magazine, also in Manhattan. At 18 years old, I was traveling to New York City and home with the crowds of rush hour commuters 4 days a week.
“Besides the internships themselves, the whole aspect of their location and my daily journeys to and from the city was a valuable experience. Not only am I very confident in taking public transportation by myself to, from and around the city, I also have a much better idea of how the city works in terms of layout and way of life. I was officially a commuter and I felt like a true adult in more ways than one. I had a steady job (two) and it would be immature and stupid to call in sick, like I might at school, just so I could sleep in. Every day I learned something new. When spending time with my friends from HS, I felt really old because of the tremendous real life pressure that was on my shoulders. I also made a lot of really good connections for the future, including a summer job at G&J.”
Throughout the year we still attended classes with each other, but we brought with us all of the shared and individual experiences into the classroom. The Applied Academics aspect of the school made our classes feel more relevant and tapped into these experiences and put our learning in the context of our lived experiences.
“In social studies, I created an excellent resume and I learned the techniques that help make a resume good. I even helped my mom with hers. Also, through the environmental studies class I’ve become much more environmentally aware and I understand how each little bit I do can affect the Earth, and by teaching others around me how to respect the Earth. I also became more interested in what I could do to help the earth and society. That’s one thing that Walkabout has definitely instilled on me. I can make a difference. I have a voice that others can hear.”Journal reflection 5/27/1998
At the end of the school year, we spent weeks preparing our Presentation, Walkabout’s version of graduation. Each of us, in front of our families, our friends and their families, would stand up and talk about our year, what we learned, how we had grown, our challenges, our successes and who we had become. So many aspects of the school year had prepared us for that moment. We were comfortable speaking to and engaging with adults. We had to watch ourselves on video to polish our interviewing skills, and we often presented to each other in class to share our work and our thoughts. That night was so powerful in so many ways.
Bringing Walkabout to Philadelphia
For the last year I have been working with Walkabout Education, the non-profit created to preserve and provide the Walkabout model to anyone to use to open their own school. It started as a conversation with Ben Wild, the Executive Director as an exploration and then developed into a plan to bring the Walkabout School to Philadelphia. As a Walkabout graduate, an educator, and a mom, I am on a mission to bring this unbelievable, life-changing school to Philadelphia’s young people.
We are in a new place, in uncharted territory in many ways, when it comes to how we do school. In the rush to go “back to normal,” we have not stopped to consider this moment, what our students have experienced, what they have learned about what school can look like and, essentially what school is for.
Our students are seekers. They see the world around us changing and they see that schools, essentially, look the same as they have for decades. We need schools that give students real world opportunities to not only learn about career paths, but show what they can do and build confidence and independence that is vital in the future economy and global community they are moving into and already inhabit. We need to get kids off of the conveyor belt we have set for them and give them a chance to define their own path and their own future and explore who they are and who they want to be with a caring adult and mentor at their side.
A 2014 study of Walkabout alumni showed:
- 96% of Walkabout graduates say: “Walkabout made me the person that I am today”
- 98% of graduates attend college after Walkabout
- 37% of graduates attend graduate school (compared to a national average of 11.5%)2
- Walkabout graduates are assets to the community, often pursuing careers in education, healthcare, and social work. 22% of Walkabout graduates enter the teaching profession
I am thankful for the support of my Walkabout Philly Advisory Board throughout this journey. They have asked important questions and been an amazing sounding board. I am actively seeking partnerships with organizations interested in making this public school a reality for young people here in Philadelphia. There are 5 Challenge Areas that are easy to tap into: Wilderness, Service Learning, Internship, Applied Academics and Presentation. If you are an educator looking to help build a new opportunity for young people in Philadelphia, please reach out! You can send an email to: marybeth at walkabout.org.