NYC Outward Bound Schools was founded in 1987 to bring Outward Bound’s powerful educational approach to New York City’s young people and their public schools.
Our Roots: Outward Bound
In 1986, a group of Outward Bound enthusiasts, frustrated by the poor graduation rates in NYC public schools, petitioned for a charter from Outward Bound USA to operate Outward Bound programs in New York City. Based on their own experiences with Outward Bound, our founders knew that it offered a powerful antidote to our city’s educational issues.
They understood that the lessons of Outward Bound transcend place: this highly adaptable, dynamic way of teaching and learning is as relevant and powerful in public schools as in the mountains, if not more so. Ultimately, they knew this powerful approach could change the trajectories of our city’s young people, helping more students to graduate with the knowledge and skills to lead with confidence and curiosity, persist in the face of challenge and live fulfilling lives. Outward Bound approved the petition in 1987, making NYC Outward Bound Schools the first independent Outward Bound urban center in the country.
The 1990s: School-Based Beginnings
In the late 80s, we developed our first school-based program at South Shore High in response to racial tensions in the school. By the early 90s, several NYC high schools — George Washington, South Bronx, Eastern District — started incorporating our programs and practices, and we expanded into professional development for teachers and corporate groups.
In 1993, we opened our first “whole school,” The School for the Physical City, incorporating the Expeditionary Learning model. The same year, our students launched Rebels with a Cause, a youth-run program for children ages 8-13 in the South Bronx. By our 10th anniversary, more than 10,000 students had experienced our programs, and we opened three new schools as part of our growing network.
The 2000s: An Expansive Network
In 2000, we established our headquarters in Long Island City, thanks to a $7.5 million Millennium Campaign led by our Board of Directors. In the early 2000s, we joined Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to create 200 small public schools, and with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we opened 10 schools across the city, becoming the first NYC Department of Education partner to found schools in every borough. We also returned to our roots by establishing a five-day backpacking trip for students and opening our five-story climbing wall on the back of our building. By our 20th anniversary, we’d reached 40,000 students from more than 250 schools.
The 2010s: A Focus on College
In 2011, WHEELS’ Assistant Principal Jenny Rodriguez created the first College March at WHEELS, a NYC Outward Bound School in Washington Heights. Three years later, we’d helped nearly 20 schools across the country launch and host their own College Marches, which drew the attention of President Obama, who highlighted the event in his 2014 State of the Union address. This same decade, we started our To & Through College programming, which supported high school students — many of whom were the first in their families to apply to college — through the college search, application and enrollment process.
The 2020s: We are Crew, Not Passengers
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close their doors, we quickly shifted our school coaching and adventure programming, among other work, to a virtual environment. Virtual Crew served as a social-emotional lifeline for many students who were isolated at home or grieving the loss of loved ones. Seeing the success of this model, City Council approved a $1.6 million grant in 2021 to have us deliver Crew programming to 50 new partner schools across the city and help students re-engage in their communities and strengthen their social-emotional skills.
In 2022, Vanessa Rodriguez succeeded founding CEO Richard Stopol as the organization’s new leader, and, with the support of the board, launched a new three-year strategic plan.