Thompson Island Outward Bound: School on the Ocean

By Richard Campbell

As a follow up to South Boston Online coverage of programs offered by Thompson Island Outward Bound, this writer went out on the sunny Thursday this past week to see operations up close and personal with the island staff. A little background for readers in order. From its early beginnings in 1626, before the establishment of Boston, the island in the Boston Harbor that bears his name, was “established” by a Scottish gentleman, David Thompson as a trading post for furs and fish. Originally inhabited by Neponset Indians, and undisturbed for nearly two hundred years after Thompson’s arrival, it found its mission in training students as the Boston Farm School in 1833, that then merged with the Boston Asylum for Indigent Boys in the North End a few years later, to eventually become the Boston Farm and Trades School in 1907. In other words, long before Outward Bound partnered to run the island in 1988, the tradition of training youth had been well established.

Measuring approximately two hundred acres, the island campus is a lush environment staffed by educational professionals who serve roughly five thousand students annually- the majority of whom are students from the Boston City Schools. At any given time in the summer over a hundred students can be camped out overnight in the dormitory, living in nature four miles from downtown Boston, daily immersed in unique educational programs. I was struck by how well cared for the island is, and how large the operations are that make the school run. In partnerships with the city of Boston, major universities, the National Park Service, Coast Guard and national STEM initiatives, the Thompson Island Outward Bound Educational Center has become a driving force in bringing the world of exploration, science, and educational leadership offered at no charge to the youth of Boston. An island with a mission primarily dedicated to the advancement of Boston city school students, Thompson Outward Bound also supports its philanthropic mission by corporate donations, paid for social events, such as weddings on the island, that allow the center to provide in depth hands on training for students from fifth grade to high school in a large multi-level program.

Besides the historical buildings on the campus, the hilly wetlands that include two large salt marshes, and nature trails, make the ideal outdoor laboratory for students to study the environment. You can see students immersed in nature, in their “wellies” studying in the estuaries, salt marshes, or climbing high into the sky on sixty-two-foot alpine climbing towers, doing hands on learning in labs, or being mentored in leadership and developmental skills- or just meeting for lunch in groups. Learning is suddenly fun, building a kind of self-esteem and teamwork that brings the students to the next level in a charged environment. Being greeted by the island bird populations of humorous turkeys, looming big turkey vultures, cormorants, striking kites, and cranes, or sea crabs, and aquatic life up close, visiting the island I got an extensive tour by Jaclyn Parks, the Marketing and Communications Director as she introduced the instructional staff members, who explained the Outward Bound mission in depth.

Whitney Olesen, Operations and Expeditions Programs Director, seems like the epitome of hands on management, as she enthusiastically described the seven-day kayaking programs in Summer Expeditions- where students are literally kayaking in two person teams around Boston Harbor Islands from island to island. With the various dorm and classroom buildings and equipment Outward Bound resembles a small college campus, and the place is in perpetual motion. The integration of the curriculum with learning at the schools was underscored by Gemma Falivene, Connections Program Manager who said their focus is expanding the public school partnerships, with the goal to continue adding partnership schools to their current 6 strong partners, expanding to serve 20% of Boston’s middle school students, thus impacting practices in the school system as a whole. All Boston public school middle school students can join to get up to speed in educational leadership skills, through these blended program. For students who are a little older, 6th and 7th graders, there is the Environmental Connections, a three-day overnight program. Outward Bound offers a variety of educational programs that vary in length from one day to five weeks, allowing students the opportunity for various commitments.

In partnership with the National Park Service who raise the grant money and help with implementation, Jay Esty manages the Green Ambassadors program for seven weeks in the summer, in which older students are employed to participate in environmental projects including scientific projects like clam seeding, eel grass site monitoring, using GIS systems, as well as general environmental education blended with leadership skills. The career development workshops bring in visiting speakers for what they call lunch and learn on subjects like green building, facilities and environmental resource management.

For adults in professional organizations looking to build leadership skills, Outward Bound Professional offers a fee-based set of customized training in leadership and team skills- a real way to escape from the cube life and bring motivational force to any organization. In evidence on the island when I was visiting were staff from New Balance, were there as part of the Corporate Volunteer Program for Outward Bound, gleefully hiking around the island. Everything from the focus on sustainable catered foods to clever island wayfinding signs, wedding facilities at the old Head Master Hall, to conference rooms makes Thompson a pleasure to visit for corporate and social gatherings- the funds from which go entirely into the programs for the students.

It seems that many students that start out in their early school years get the bug and keep returning all the way into college. The entire spectrum of studies and depth in training compliments the well-built and managed resource, in a sophisticated combination of education, outreach, and interpersonal development. If you are a Boston school student who didn’t put this on your calendar this year, and you are starting to think of how in the world you may ever get ready for the frightening prospect of preparing for high school or college, Outward Bound is a community, campus, and program that will elevate you, and bring friendships along the way.

For parents who are not familiar with Outward Bound, this is a life changing opportunity for any Boston City school student to find transformative values, and get a leg up before entering the adult world. The island is open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the season. There are no food services for visitors to the island who aren’t participating in the Outward Bound programs, but you can bring a packed lunch. The ferry leaves from the EDIC peer in South Boston, which is at the far end of the terminal on Summer Street, South Boston, and the fare is cash only: 17.00 for adults, 12.00 for seniors or students. See schedule below for details or visit the Boston Harbor Islands website.

Ferry Service to Thompson Island
May 28 – Sept 6, Weekends Only
SATURDAY:
Departs EDIC, South Boston: 8:00am, 12:00pm, 2:30pm
Departs Thompson Island: 11:30am, 2:00pm, 4:30pm

SUNDAY:
Departs EDIC, South Boston: 8:00am, 12:00pm (noon)
Departs Thompson Island: 11:30am, 4:30pm

Jeanne Rooney

Jeanne Rooney is the Editor in Chief for South Boston Online.