Through Challenge, Principal, Parents Help Develop New Vision for N.J. School

By Joanna Richardson — November 11, 1992 7 min read
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James Clayton felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach.

For several hours he had practiced navigating the face of a low, rocky cliff, rappelling down to safety when he reached the top.

But he was not sure he was ready to face another test: hoisting himself up the side of a 100-foot-high quarry in front of 11 people.

The onlookers, six men and five women from suburban Denville, N.J., included the president of the Denville board of education and the parents of Lakeview Elementary School students.

Mr. Clayton is the principal of Lakeview.

The task “was not easy, and I was in front of all these people,’' Mr. Clayton recalls. “I suddenly got that same sensation I would get if a teacher called on me to put a geometry proof on the board and I hadn’t worked out the problem.’'

Though the principal conquered his fears and made the climb, it was only part of a day’s work on Outward Bound’s Hurricane Island program, an arm of the Connecticut-based organization that organizes wilderness experiences for young people. A high-ropes course, sailing challenge, and “solo camp out’’ were also scheduled during the three-day excursion to the island, 12 miles off the coast of Rockland, Me.

The scene was worlds apart from Lakeview, where Mr. Clayton had been principal for less than two years. But he had assembled the parents on this trip for a purpose.

By bringing together parents, teachers, administrators, and students in this way, he reasons, they could focus on Lakeview’s mission in education. And this mission, he suggests, should reflect what Outward Bound stresses: pushing people beyond what they thought were their limits.

Like Outward Bound, schools “have to prepare [kids] for things we can’t even anticipate,’' he remarks. “We have to give them an education that allows them to accept challenges.’'

A Tough Sell

Mr. Clayton raised the idea of an Outward Bound trip for Lakeview to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in Morristown, N.J., which sponsors a grant program for principals to pursue projects in instructional leadership.

The foundation loved the idea, he says, and last spring named him one of 25 New Jersey principals awarded a $5,000 grant under the program.

But selling it to the Lakeview faculty was another matter.

Mr. Clayton showed an Outward Bound promotional video to a group of teachers, who reacted with skepticism, he says.

“I inherited a school with an average experience of about 25 years,’' he adds. After seeing footage of people scaling rocks and climbing ropes, the faculty “seemed to be saying, ‘What? Are you nuts?’ ''

Though he was committed to a team-building experience, Mr. Clayton says he worried about recruiting volunteers. He finally called the Dodge Foundation to ask if he could “water down’’ his proposal. But program officers there encouraged him to continue.

After several more plugs to the faculty and the P.T.A. executive board, he decided the problem was in the marketing.

In the school newsletter, Mr. Clayton answered the concerns of potential participants and “put out a challenge.’'

“I sort of said, ‘Maybe you’ve turned 40 and you feel you can’t do this,’ '' he remarks with a laugh. “And that really got some people interested.’'

Community Cross-Section

The group of parents that volunteered for the trip represented a cross-section of the primarily middle-class Denville community.

Among them were a teacher from another elementary school, a librarian, a lawyer, a mail carrier, an undertaker, and a writer. None were more than casual acquaintances.

But “for 2 1/2 days we pushed, pulled, encouraged, and cheered for each other,’' Mr. Clayton says.

After making the 10-hour drive to Rockland in a fierce rainstorm, the group rigged and sailed an open 30-foot pulling boat to a mooring in the harbor. The 12 travelers, accompanied by two Outward Bound guides, spent the night on the boat.

The following day’s journey brought the group to Hurricane Island, where the principal and parents endured “a run and dip in the icy water’’ and participated in “group initiatives’'--rock climbing, ropes courses--all afternoon.

They retired to the shelter of the island’s rescue station the first night on the island.

Challenging Limits

For the “solo camp out’’ on the second night, group members were dropped off at various sites on the island with only a sleeping bag and tarpaulin.

While the activities pushed the members of the group to physical and mental limits, they took time to discuss each experience afterwards, Mr. Clayton notes.

“We reflected on each challenge--how we felt, how we handled it individually, and how it affected education,’' he says.

As he wrote in a report to Dodge, Outward Bound “is founded on two propositions: that learning and growth occur as a result of the interaction of each individual with the environment and other people; and, that such learning is transferable to other situations.’'

Mr. Clayton describes his rock-climbing experience as one of the most valuable lessons of the trip.

The anxiety of facing a climbing challenge was “one of the most powerful things I felt.’'

“I hadn’t had the sensation in years ... of being asked to do something I thought I couldn’t do,’' he says.

As an educator and a parent, he adds, he has become more empathetic to the everyday challenges children face in school.

The trip also “expanded my own sphere of influence’’ at Lakeview and in the Denville community, says the principal, by involving parents “who might not otherwise have been active in the school.’'

‘A Feeling of Involvement’

When the group returned from Maine, he set up parent and faculty meetings, using slides from the Outward Bound trip to stimulate discussion about where Lakeview was headed.

“We talked about a vision for the school--what we needed for the future,’' he says.

Parents, teachers, Outward Bound participants, and school administrators gathered for a final meeting at the school to exchange ideas about education and draft a mission statement for Lakeview.

In the school’s “Declaration of Excellence,’' the staff, parents, and children pledge to encourage creative thinking and a love of learning, support the development of each student’s self-esteem, and provide an environment in which respect, sensitivity, humor, and curiosity prevail.

And they promise to develop a cooperative and productive community of parents, teachers, and students.

The ideas in the mission statement were “a direct result of the trip,’' says the principal.

“Outward Bound enhanced and supported our activities [at Lakeview],’' he says. “There’s been a dramatic increase in the feeling of involvement.’'

Enthusiasm Is Contagious

Enthusiasm over the Outward Bound experience was so contagious that two similar trips have been planned.

Later this month, 10 teachers will join the principal on an outing in northwestern New Jersey sponsored by Project U.S.E., a local organization that sponsors expeditions similar to those of Outward Bound.

And Mr. Clayton has scheduled an outing for 16 Lakeview 5th graders and their parents.

Celeste Frisbee, one of the group’s Hurricane Island guides, has been leading Outward Bound trips since 1975. She says more and more schools are getting interested in team-building experiences.

Her own school is a perfect example of the trend.

As an alternative educator at Georges Valley High School in Maine, Ms. Frisbee takes the 9th through 12th graders on Outward Bound outings three times a year and leads faculty trips.

She says the experience can open the lines of communication, encouraging members to try to understand and support one another. Once that foundation is laid, members may be more likely to take what Ms. Frisbee calls “safe risks.’'

Many administrators now seem to recognize that the risk-taking and team-building learned in Outward Bound--and programs like it--can be carried into the schools.

When Mr. Clayton attended a meeting last month with the other New Jersey principals honored by the Dodge Foundation, his account of the Hurricane Island trip was well received.

The administrators listened to the Lakeview principal, laughed with him, and exchanged knowing smiles and nods.

An overwhelming number of the grant winners had participated that summer in adventures like Outward Bound at principals’ centers around the country.

Jeanne K. Andrews, the principal of Warren County Vocational Technical School in Washington, N.J., says she proposed a similar outdoor adventure with her school’s faculty to develop “a vision statement to guide the decisionmaking process in the school.’'

She, too, says the experience made the participants more aware of obstacles to learning.

“You can’t climb 80 feet to a platform,’' said Ms. Andrews, “then sail across a wire the length of a football field without saying, ‘Wow, I’ve met a challenge.’ ''

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Through Challenge, Principal, Parents Help Develop New Vision for N.J. School


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