Surrounded by her classmates on a bright October morning in the woods of Fishkill, New York, Diana Ramirez had no trouble making herself heard.
The 14-year-old enthusiastically initiated chants and cheerfully shouted instructions to her peers during team-building activities on a multi-day camping trip organized by their Brooklyn public high school.
Speaking up hasn’t always been so easy for the high school freshman — especially during the past several years overshadowed by the pandemic.
“Socialization was really hard, stuck in my home for months doing nothing but talking to myself,” Diana said. The teen still gets so nervous sometimes talking to new people that she shakes. “It’s hard to talk to people, and it’s hard to have an actual conversation face to face, not on the phone,” she said.
Helping teenagers like Diana find their voice is central to the mission of Leaders High School, a small public school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, that’s part of a network of NYC Outward Bound Schools across the five boroughs. The network’s model focuses on forging tight-knit relationships between kids and staff, often through shared outdoor experiences.
That mission has taken on extra urgency for this year’s freshmen, whose entire middle school experience was upended by the pandemic, and who are still cautiously emerging from its shadow as they begin high school.
Nearly three in four teenagers nationwide reported at least one “adverse childhood event” — a traumatic experience linked to long-term mental health challenges — during the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirteen percent of teens experienced at least four.
“These were the COVID babies,” said Yodit Stevens, a special education teacher at Leaders, and Diana’s chaperone during the camping trip. “They’re just coming out of their shells.”
The school’s annual camping trip, where kids spend several days in the woods with classmates, a teacher, and trained guides, is a cornerstone of Leaders’ approach. It serves as a foundational bonding experience and a chance for teens, many of whom have never spent a night away from home, to get a taste of independence.
The excursion was canceled for the past two years because of COVID-19. But the trip was back this year, and school staffers hope it can offer the new class of ninth graders a fresh start and a way to process the lingering pain of the past three years to begin healing.
For Diana, it’s already working.
“Everything has changed,” she said. “I’m talking to people, I’m a little more social … you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Mental health tolls add up
Schools across New York City resumed full-time, in-person classes last year after more than a year of fully remote or hybrid instruction. But COVID still loomed large.
Mask rules remained in place until the spring, and a COVID wave last winter kept kids home in droves, driving up chronic absence rates at schools across the city, including at Leaders.
“A lot of kids were getting sick, and then once they were sick, they were also just scared and isolated … it was like we have to stay home to protect ourselves,” said Tom Mullen, the principal of Leaders.
Stevens, who worked with eighth graders last year, noticed that even when her students were in school last year, they were often reluctant to open up to classmates or teachers.
“There was a lot of pain, resistance. It was hard to get them to speak in class,” she said. “As far as the interpersonal relationships, they were very closed off.”
Diana remembers those fears vividly. She watched multiple family members get sick one by one, and spent long stretches barely leaving her room.
For a teenager who thrived on interaction and social experiences, the isolation was devastating.
“It hit her very, very hard,” said Diana’s mom, Rosa Ramirez. “She had a lot going on in her head … it was worse for her to think, ‘What’s going on with my mom, my cousin? Are we going to be able to survive?’”
Mental health challenges for teens were widespread during the pandemic.
Across the country, 44% of teenagers reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless at some point in 2021, a different CDC survey found.
At Leaders, staffers are just starting to scratch the surface of what their new students may have gone through before arriving.
“Some of them come from some really hard backgrounds, some traumatic situations,” Stevens said.
Convincing wary families to let kids travel
Administrators at Leaders High School knew that restarting the annual camping trip would be a critical part of their efforts to give incoming ninth graders a positive start to their high school experience — and a chance to start to heal pandemic wounds.
Students spend the trip getting to know peers in their “Crew,” a signature NYC Outward Bound course that lasts all four years of high school. “Crew leaders” like Stevens serve as faculty advisers for the same group of students throughout their time at Leaders, and act as chaperones on the camping trip.
In New York City, where middle school students fan out to high schools across the five boroughs and often start ninth-grade knowing few or no other classmates, that social home base can be a lifeline.
“Going out and having this experience together is a catalyst for really intense bonding,” Mullen said. “They’re craving it. They know what they’ve missed and … they want to connect with each other and they want their high school experience to be special.”
But school officials knew it would also take some work to convince wary families and kids to leave their homes, city, and cell phones behind after three years of being largely hunkered down.
Diana’s mom Rosa said she was nervous about sending her youngest daughter — who has never spent a night away from home — on the camping trip, even after watching her two older sons thrive on the excursion years earlier.
“Being that she’s the only girl, it was a little more difficult,” she said.
School leaders didn’t shy away from families’ concerns and dispatched alumni and older siblings to share their experiences to help ease fears. They talked through communication and safety plans with families, and some staffers, including Stevens, offered to keep in touch with parents by text throughout the trip.
That openness and proactive communication ultimately won Rosa over.
“I see how they get along with the children, they treat them like family and don’t treat them like students,” she said. “They’re very vigilant.”
Getting families on board wasn’t the only hurdle.
NYC Outward Bound, the nonprofit that supports schools like Leaders and funds the annual excursion, had to staff up and refresh existing employees’ training after two years without a camping trip.
“Before anyone’s on site, we go through simulations and trainings with our staff,” including what to do if a student is injured or lost, said Vanessa Rodriguez, the CEO of NYC Outward Bound Schools.
The nonprofit ultimately decided to shorten the trip from five days to three to ease the transition.
A chance to ditch screens and unplug
For teens who spent years glued to their devices as crucial academic and social outlets, they initially found the no-phone rule of the camping trip hard to take.
One 2021 survey of more than 5,000 12- and 13-year-olds from across the country found that middle schoolers reported an average of nearly 8 hours a day on screens during the pandemic, up from an estimated average of 3.8 hours a day for the same group before the pandemic.
But once the teenagers got out in the woods, they were surprised by how quickly they forgot all about their devices.
“Everyone’s actually saying, ‘Oh I realize I haven’t been looking at my phone, I haven’t been grabbing for it because I’ve been enjoying myself,’” Diana said.
Without phones, students were forced to focus more explicitly on the tasks at hand — and on each other.
For 14-year-old Gabriel Alexandre, that meant trying something completely new: preparing dinner with his classmates.
“The materials were already there, but it was cool putting them together for our class as a community, that’s … bonding,” he said. The experience has even given him some more confidence to experiment in the kitchen at home, he added.
Mullen said offering activities that don’t feel contrived or have a prescribed outcome is key to making the camping trip a meaningful learning experience.
“We let the kids get lost sometimes, and they’ll see like, ‘Hey I don’t think we’re going the right way,’ and reset their course,” he said. “I think education is most powerful when students are grappling with non-routine problems where the answers aren’t obvious.”
The open-endedness of the trip gives kids with a wide range of personalities and skill sets a chance to shine, staffers said.
That’s especially important for a school like Leaders, where students come from a broad array of racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.
One student, a native Urdu speaker, won praise for being especially observant during group activities. Another, an accomplished athlete, volunteered to cart her classmates’ heavy backpacks when they got tired and hoisted her peers up a steep hill during a hike. A third, who had arrived at the school just a week before the camping trip, leapt into the role of navigator, directing his classmates around the Sharpe Nature Reservation in Fishkill.
And then there was Diana, the group’s vocal leader, who displayed a special ability to “bring everyone together with a lot of love,” according to Stevens, the group’s faculty adviser.
“They are all leaders. Each in their own way, and literally each one of them brings something special,” she added.
But the most memorable moment of the trip came when the kids shed their individual labels, dropped their guard, and came together as a group.
It happened around the campfire on the second night. Stevens set the tone by sharing some raw and painful news: She’d recently learned that a family member had fallen seriously ill.
“I had them just close their eyes and sit for a moment and just feel the breeze, feel their own heartbeats, listen to the sounds around them, and check in with themselves,” she said. “I told them … life waits for no one at all.”
Stevens’ disclosure opened the floodgates and gave students permission to share some of their own lingering traumas.
“She set an example that feeling your feelings are OK and ... we’re all here for each other,” said Diana. “Everyone was kind of letting it out. There was a lot of tears.”
The conversation opened a window for Stevens to bring up the importance of mental health support, and the stigma surrounding therapy.
“We talked about needing therapy … in some of our communities it’s not big for you to go and get therapy, but it’s needed, it’s absolutely needed,” Stevens said.
Diana hopes the feelings and honesty from that night will linger when the kids get back to school, much like the smoke that clings to clothes after a campfire.
“We’re going to be talking about this trip for years,” she said.
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.