Ben Wild spent much of high school bored or in trouble.
“I had a really difficult time finding the stuff they were teaching me to be relevant and applicable to my life,” he said. “I got in a lot of trouble, I got really bad grades.”
Wild found his niche when he transferred to Walkabout, an alternative program outside New York City that stressed hands-on experiences, such as internships and outdoor activities. And while that program shuttered after 37 years in 2014, Wild has won approval to open a Bronx high school based on a similar concept.
On Wednesday evening, the city’s Panel for Educational Policy gave its stamp of approval for Walkabout Bronx High School to open its doors next school year — the first district high school to open in the borough since 2013.
It’s notable partly because Mayor Bill de Blasio has been reluctant to launch new schools, preferring to invest in existing ones. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, phased out about 150 schools during his tenure, including many large, underperforming high schools, and opened many smaller ones in their place.
Walkabout’s name is a reference to an aboriginal coming-of-age ritual. The Bronx school will emphasize hands-on experiences, including a weeklong backpacking trip, internships, and community service.
That focus on real-world learning will extend to the classroom: Wild, who is executive director of the Walkabout Education Foundation, said students who are learning about structural racism in history class may not be expected to write a traditional paper, but would instead help an organization like the local nonprofit Community Action for Safe Apartments to write pamphlets that help explain residents’ housing rights.
School leaders also emphasized that classes will be interdisciplinary and will focus on school-wide units of study. One planned unit will focus on the concept of “identity”: Students in science classes learn about genetics while other courses may allow students to explore their own family ancestry.
Opening the school has been a yearslong process. Wild and a handful of others initially pitched opening a new Walkabout school in Westchester, near where the original school was located, as part of XQ’s Super Schools Project, a national competition to “reinvent” high schools with winners winning $10 million to launch their concept. The team was named a finalist in 2016, but was not ultimately selected.
Wild eventually set his sights on the Bronx, and is once again in the running for XQ funding; the school is one of 90 proposals that have advanced in a separate competition to open or overhaul 40 schools in New York City, with winners receiving up to $500,000. Since the school has already been approved by the education department, it will open regardless of whether it is selected. (XQ Institute is supported by Emerson Collective, which is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)
Wild has been meeting with local organizations and parent leaders in the Bronx to explain the concept and find community partners, such as the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, which is partnering with the school. Wild, along with a handful of others involved in the design process, also has worked with some middle school students to gather input on the school’s model.
The school will be unscreened, meaning it is open to any student who wants to apply, though it will give priority to those who live in the Bronx, according to education department documents.
Walkabout will start with only ninth graders and will add a grade each year, and is projected to serve no more than 360 students at full capacity. Since the deadline for applying to high schools for next year has already passed, students will be allowed to enroll through a new waitlist component of the high school admissions process.
Bronx parent Grisel Cardona, who works with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, said she was impressed when Wild presented the concept of the school to parent leaders.
“It doesn’t look like a typical school where you’re sitting at a desk for a set number of hours,” Cardona said. “This is hands-on and getting out there. Something high schoolers actually need.”
The school is set to open on a gleaming Mott Haven campus in the South Bronx, which is home to five other schools, including one in District 75, which serves students with more complex disabilities. Cardona, who is also a member of the District 75 parent council, said she is hopeful that Walkabout will build partnerships with the District 75 school.
Yesy Robles, another Bronx parent who has been involved with designing the school, said the borough is sorely in need of more high-quality high schools.
Robles grew up in the borough and watched as none of her 11 siblings graduated from high school — some of whom attended William Howard Taft High School in the 1990s, which was considered one of the most troubled in the city and was eventually closed.
Looking at school options for her nephews, and surveying the local landscape, she hasn’t yet found for them “a solid school that will put them on the right path in their own community,” Robles said. “Walkabout could be a model for that.”
Katie O’Hanlon, an education department spokesperson, said: “We are excited the PEP unanimously approved this new school [Wednesday] and we’ll continue to engage the community as we facilitate a fall 2020 school opening.”