This year a faculty committee led by Head of Upper School Ben Snyder and Science Department Chair Jen Craft will be working on the development of the EXCEL program and requirement at Nobles. EXCEL is the acronym for “Experiential and Community-Engaged Learning.” This work is following up on a study and discussion by the board of trustees that extended over much of the previous two school years. Before explaining the emergence of EXCEL, however, a bit of history is in order.
In 1978, former Nobles photography and journalism teacher, Joe Swayze, organized and led what many consider to be the first official Nobles trip. He and a group of Nobles teachers and students paddled canoes down the length of the Hudson River for several days in the summer. Nobles teachers had led travel groups prior to this event, but they had done so as private undertakings. Swayze’s expedition, therefore, is where we generally mark the birth of an experiential education program at Nobles.
It expanded slowly from that point, remaining largely an entrepreneurial enterprise for various members of the faculty. Starting in the 1990’s, spurred by the support of former headmaster Dick Baker, and inspired by key members of the faculty including John Gifford and Ben Snyder, the travel program burgeoned. Over the last decade, the travel program has been more formalized and centrally organized.Last year, over 230 students travelled with the school to locations all around the nation and the globe; most of those trips had a significant service component as part of the agenda.
When Headmaster Ted Gleason arrived at Nobles in 1971, he immediately sought to create a community service program where very little had existed before. He hired Bill Chamberlin to do this work, and for the first time Nobles students were regularly shuttling out to sites to support various non-profits in surrounding towns and cities. The service program grew slowly but steadily on an entirely voluntary basis through the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Then, in 1985, an 80-hour community service graduation requirement was approved, and the first class to complete the requirement graduated in 1989.
In 1998, with the arrival of Community Service Director Sandi MacQuinn, service became ever more integrally part of the basic ethic and function of the school. Today, the vast majority of students graduate with many more hours of service than required.Service is part of the activities of most clubs, varsity teams, and travel opportunities at Nobles.
Over the last two decades, we have seen the emergence and blossoming of a number of other experiential education opportunities, including study-away programs (such as School Year Abroad and the Island School), internships, and senior projects. As the school undertook its last strategic planning process a few years ago, it was quite clear that experiential learning at Nobles was a uniquely strong component of our overall program, representing both a distinguishing quality and an opportunity for the future.
The trustees decided to fund experiential education at Nobles so that it is equitably available to all students and so that the program can be staffed appropriately and sustained in perpetuity. They also created a committee to study experiential education more thoroughly. The committee was chaired by Director of College Counseling Michael Denning and Trustee Gita Iyer. Committee members included trustees, faculty, parents and graduates. Articulating that experiential learning was critical to our future and the mission of the school, the committee recommended, and the trustees subsequently approved, that all the experiential learning programs be merged into a single concept and one office at Nobles. From that, the idea of EXCEL was developed. The trustees’ report concluded, “experiential learning is a must have rather than a nice to have. In addition to academic skills and knowledge, leaders for the public good today need the attitudes and competencies developed through experiential learning challenges, aand the adolescent years are ideal for learning and developing these skills and values.”
As a result of all this work and thinking over the years, the faculty this year will be developing and making a recommendation to me about what the EXCEL program will become. It is likely that we will be talking about some form of an EXCEL requirement for graduation in the future rather than simply a community service requirement. It will also be part of this group’s challenge to integrate effectively the EXCEL philosophy, and EXCEL opportunities, into the overall program of the school. The intent is also to use EXCEL as an opportunity to enhance, and not diminish, the service ethic of the school. This will be exciting work, and I am eager to witness the progress and review the outcome later in this school year. I want to close with the statements of purpose and philosophy for EXCEL developed and approved by the trustees in 2013:
“EXPERIENTIAL AND COMMUNITY ENGAGED LEARNING (EXCEL) is critical to the Nobles mission to motivate students to achieve their highest potential and to inspire leadership for the public good. EXCEL provides the tools, context and inspiration for each student to discover and pursue his or her passions with confidence, creativity and responsibility. It is through EXCEL that Nobles best develops citizenship, collaboration, empathy, resilience, appropriate risk-taking and character. On campus, EXCEL principles are integrated into the academic and afternoon programs. Off campus, EXCEL principles foster the development and sustenance of over one hundred partnerships for study, service, exploration and community engagement in Greater Boston, across the country and around the world. Finally, EXCEL strengthens the rigor of the academic program, and it is where we most effectively motivate students to, as our mission says, lead lives characterized by service to others.”