In 1992 a group of parents and teachers, including Steve Sinnett and Lynne Whiting, collaborated on a new academic program for the Chilmark School. Now known as the Chilmark School Outing Program, it blossomed out of the belief that children and adults can learn together outside their classroom, using the world we live in as the key educational tool.
Last week the Chilmark Community Center was the gathering spot for current outing program coordinators Meg Athearn and Hillary Noyes-Keene to host a potluck to celebrate the vision of a group of parents and educators dedicated to making the Chilmark School a place where children thrive in a rich learning environment that extends outside the classroom. The community center buzzed with excitement as the approximately 80 program supporters gathered to pay tribute to the founding members of the program and to share stories.
The highlight of the evening was the viewing of the 20th anniversary documentary created by Becky Barca-Tinus. Becky has been on various outing program trips with her two daughters, Amalie and Mikayla, both of whom were students some years ago. Becky continues at the school as lead teacher for outing program adventures and as the school’s technology instructor. She spent countless hours, video recorder in hand, interviewing alumni, educators and parents about all facets of the program.
In its earlier years, the program offered a white water rafting trip, a weeklong sail aboard tall ship Shenandoah and a ski trip to Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabassett Valley, Me. In recent years, the program has evolved slightly, yet remains fundamentally the same. The first week of school for fourth and fifth-grade students is spent sailing the waters around the Vineyard aboard the tall ship Alabama. Depending on tides and wind, they may venture as far as Boston or Mystic, Conn. It is an opportunity like no other where they are immersed in maritime life and are active participants in every aspect of the sail. The ski trip still takes the fifth grade students to Sugarloaf. They become a family for the week — preparing meals together, participating in ski lessons and academics and having simple down time to connect as friends. It is a challenging experience both mentally and physically as they push themselves to improve their skiing skills and to grow as self-reliant people. Each June, the third and fourth graders participate in a day kayak trip with Island Spirit. It gives them an opportunity to connect prior to coming together as a fourth and fifth grade class in the fall.
On each of these adventures, students incorporate all aspects of learning into their daily routines. Science, geography, math, writing and so on come into play with nearly everything they encounter. Whether it’s plotting a course on their navigational charts, looking at the stars or the tide, measuring wind speed or air temperature, reading a map, estimating travel times, journaling about the day’s escapades or simply learning how to work together as a team with a common goal — it’s all education. This particular form of education simply takes place somewhere other than sitting at a desk under fluorescent lighting in a school house.
Although Steve Sinnett was unable to attend the celebration, his voice was shared with us not only in the documentary but also through his grown children. Ty and Ben and their mother Emily Bramhall spoke of their travels as if they were yesterday. And while all the outing program adventures lend themselves to memorable stories, the weeklong sail seems to prompt the most conversation. Perhaps it’s the thrill of life on the water, or maybe it’s the opportunity to be one with the sea and nature that truly makes the student look within themselves and generate lifelong memories.
Ty shared a story about one of her experiences aboard Shenandoah and how her group sang sea chanties to help them weather a squall they were sailing through. She remembers the words to this day.
Parent Mark Hurwitz reflected on his sailing trip which encompassed 9/11. Capt. Bob Douglas rose to the occasion on that trip as he took the children on deck where they looked at the sky and the stars. He quietly explained to them that they wouldn’t see anything unnatural, as planes had been grounded, and that, quite possibly, this would be the only time they would experience a silent sky.
Owen Maloney, a member of the first class to set out on an outing program experience, shared that he and his class connected as their intent was to succeed as a unit. His experience, like so many others, was of essentially a “no student left behind” philosophy. They were going to hoist the sails in unison, lending each other a hand when it was needed.
Parent Patty Favreau was new to the school when she sent her then fifth grade son Owen on a weeklong sail with folks she had met only a few days before. She realized it was the right decision to make when she saw her son on his return. Owen disembarked from Alabama walking slightly taller, having made friends and memories that will last a lifetime with a group of students he had only just met.
Through the years the Chilmark School Outing Program continues to demonstrate to students, parents, teachers and community members that the program motto “learning has no limits” really rings true. I feel thankful for the experiences my two children had as participants. They both now know that life truly takes on a new perspective when they are given the opportunity to experience things firsthand that others have only read about in books.
Katie Carroll lives in Chilmark and is president of the Chilmark School PTO.