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As a recipient of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Model Design and Initiation (MDI) grant, NYC Outward Bound Schools has the benefit of partnering with and learning from peer organizations in Gates’ Networks for School Improvement (NSI) portfolio. NSI grantees from across the country work together to identify and solve common problems within local middle and high schools using continuous improvement practices.

“It’s critical for us to have student stories and needs centered in our continuous improvement work,” says Aurora Kushner, NYC Outward Bound Schools’ newly appointed Director of Continuous Improvement. 

As a first step, two students from WHEELS, a NYC Outward Bound School in Washington Heights, joined a virtual meeting of NYC-based NSI grantees on January 25 to discuss and share best practices and solutions to challenges in the remote and hybrid learning environments.

Sophomore Natalie Sitkiewicz and junior Abraham Gonzalez spoke specifically about how their teachers kept lessons engaging and prioritized social-emotional support during the pandemic.

“All of my teachers and WHEELS staff have managed to maintain the quality of education virtually,” said Natalie, who mentioned trivia games and small breakout rooms with classmates as two of her favorite examples. “They put their best effort into being there for us and building community in our school. These are adults I can trust.”

“Our teachers aren’t just there to teach,” added Abraham. “They’re really people you can depend on.”

Last spring, teacher teams at WHEELS participated in a continuous improvement case study with NYC Outward Bound Schools. A key turning point in the study came when teachers began not only tracking student growth but deeply analyzing it together, acting as researchers and seeking to understand how best to help students succeed. 

“Building the right connections is important to our success,” offered Natalie, who voiced wanting more opportunities to work on real-world skills like networking and resume-building. “If we could bring this to all New York City schools, it would be a major benefit to students.”

Natalie and others will soon have the chance to further influence this work through a student advisory council, made up of students from across the NYC Outward Bound Schools network. Their role will be to give feedback on the network’s Theory of Change, guide staff in determining the impact of the program offerings, and provide different perspectives.

“If we are trying to have more impactful partnerships with our schools, we need to hear from those who have the most to gain for any improvements we make,” said Aurora. “Our students!”

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