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ON THE SCENE: Learn. Engage. Apply. Perform.
June 7, 2019

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More often than not, experience is the best teacher. As the boxer Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

Northwood School doesn't put its students in a boxing ring to gain life-altering experiences, instead it offers them a range of learning opportunities each spring through L.E.A.P. - Learn. Engage. Apply. Perform. This year, for one lucky group of nine, that entailed building a playing field for a school in Tanzania along with climbing 10,000 vertical feet in one day to summit an active volcano while other group learned about coral reef ecology and community-based conservation in Tobago.

Launched in 2017, L.E.A.P. is a week-long course wherein students in grade 9 through 11 are immersed in unique experiences. The program begins in the fall with a listing of the 14 different L.E.A.P. courses. Students submit their top five choices, and the faculty do their best to match students accordingly within course space limitations.

Following their placement, the students meet time to time throughout the year with their faculty advisers to gain skills that will help them prepare for their L.E.A.P. adventure, which takes place in May immediately following the graduation of the senior class.

Many of the courses take place in and around Lake Placid, with those students based at the school, while a few are held off-campus. The off-campus and several local courses have a fee attached to help cover expenses, such as travel to Tanzania, but there is also a scholarship pool to offset the costs of those in need.

A secondary goal of the courses held around the Placid area is to connect the students with local agencies, assets and expertise. As an example, students who sign up to learn fly fishing will also spend time with the Ausable River Association learning how rivers work and engaging in some aspect of river restoration. Similarly, those who take on the Saranac Lake 6er challenge also learn about invasive species, sustainable tourism in a green space and the causes of trail erosion and how to mitigate it.

The faculty design most L.E.A.P. courses. Of late, the school has begun seeking ideas and talent from its alumni, as well as from people in the community, as a means of further diversifying the offerings and strengthening school community ties.

"Proposals are due in the summer," said Marcy Fagan, science teacher and director of L.E.A.P. "A faculty committee helps me review the proposals and select the fall offerings. Now that we've done this for three years, we have some like Don Mellor teaching mountain rescue, that's dialed in. The course is awesome, it's local and there's no fee attached, so he'll be doing it again next year.

"Each year we try out some new courses. As an example, this year, we sent nine students to Tanzania. We have a teacher, Noel Carmichael, who lived in Tanzania and was the catalyst for starting that course. Soon after the end of the courses, we send around an anonymous survey to students, parents and teachers to determine outcomes and opportunities for improvement."

This year, Gary Green, from the Class of 1955, proposed and taught a course in woodworking using just hand tools. Class of 2000 alumus John Muraco, who owns a wellness studio, led a course in meditation, mindfulness and yoga. A new one in the works is being developed by Hannah Feinberg of Saranac Lake, a recent Cornell University graduate in nutritional science, Olympian Andrea Burke and former figure skater Michelle Rochele on how nutrition affects athletic performance.

"The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Tanzania with somebody that knows the area and is so passionate about the culture was appealing," said student Brian Betty, who hails from Lake George. "I was expecting heat, that it would be much warmer than it was. The culture was also much more developed than I thought it would be. As an example, everybody had a cellphone."

Betty and his classmates were in Tanzania to clear an area for a mountain-village preschool playground, the equipment cost covered through a fund drive organized by the students. The trip was led by Carmichael, who initially went to the country to participate in three-month project and ended up staying 10 years because she fell in love with the people and their laid-back approach to life.

"It's a place where I always felt people remember, talk about and acknowledge what matters in life more than we do here in America," said Carmichael.

"I signed up for Tanzania on a whim thinking I wouldn't get any financial aid and be able to go," said student Noah Pittman, of Vermontville. "Thankfully, the school provided me the assistance enabling me to go and have a great experience. Being there was a huge lesson for me. Their lifestyle is so different than ours. Over there, people do what they have to do to live. They are not concerned about style or living like others. I think they are more accepting."

"I was amazed by how everybody was still smiling even when they didn't have the money to feed their family that day," said Betty.

"People are just on the street selling things," said Pittman. "Any time we stopped, we were mobbed by people trying to sell us things. Other than that, it's a very large agricultural community. The food we ate was very fresh, probably picked the day before. Also, here, there is almost no diversity. In Africa, I was surrounded by new cultures, new foods, new religions, and just everything. That changed my perspective a lot. I learned that our world here isn't the only world there is."

"My mother sent me to Northwood so I'd have new experiences like L.E.A.P.," said student Braelyn Tevo, of Star Lake, who never imagined it would include clearing a playground in Tanzania. "Their daily lives are so different than ours. There are a lot of vendors sitting on the side of the street waiting for people to come by and buy things."

"It helped me understand what I have and what I don't have," said student Emily Cairo, of Miami, Florida. "I realized that I had been very close minded as to what life is like outside our country. It was a huge culture shock. I have a lot of culture in Miami, but in Tanzania, it was completely different. They were probably the nicest people I've ever met."

"Every person you meet will say hello to you and ask how you're doing," said Tevo. "Climbing the volcano was very challenging for me. It wasn't easy, but I'm glad I did it. I took some very cool pictures of the sun coming up."

All four students would go back and would like the school to serve a Tanzanian meal so their classmates can at least taste an aspect of what they experienced. Meanwhile, Fagan is seeking ideas for future life-changing experiences, be they abroad or closer to home.

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