Each fall the students at La Jolla Country Day School look forward to one special week when nearly all learning takes place outside the classroom walls. This week is set aside for out-in-the-world experiences, often in places far away from their Southern California region.
One of the most popular options this year was a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. More than two dozen sophomores and juniors grabbed a spot in this customized program run by Rustic Pathways.
The school worked with a Rustic travel advisor, who helps schools and groups fashion an unforgettable travel experience. For administrators at La Jolla Country Day School (LJCDS), this included requests for a service project, cultural exploration, boat rides and an opportunity for the teens to visit Tulane University.
Sophomore Kaitlin Yandel was one of the teens who traveled with the September program. She was interested in the service work, which centered on a house building project in an area devastated by hurricanes and socioeconomic challenges. She says she found it eye-opening to travel to a different part of the country where the day-to-day concerns are quite different from home.
“It was very educational. It helped me grow as a person, and it also opened my mind up to the different experiences of other people,” Yandel said. “I would say something I took back home was definitely not taking for granted what I have here.”
One of the main things Kaitlin and the other students learned about were the long-term effects of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Nearly 20 years later the New Orleans community is still recovering from the lasting impact on families.
The World’s Classroom in New Orleans
Over the years, the city of New Orleans has struggled with both natural disasters and manmade challenges. One of the biggest catastrophes was Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
That historic storm flooded 80-percent of the city. It caused more than 1,800 deaths and $100 billion in damage. Much of the city has recovered since the storm, but in some lower income areas, empty lots are still present where houses once stood.
Students from LJCDS and other schools work on house building efforts to benefit residents struggling to afford a place to live. In the summer of 2023, a student travel program called Rebuilding New Orleans is being relaunched to continue these efforts.
Yandel says learning about the long term impact of disasters helped her appreciate the fact that she doesn’t have to worry about hurricanes where she lives.
“It broke my heart to see all of the damage that hurricanes have done in New Orleans. Getting to hear the experiences of the people there was definitely different because it’s nothing that we experience over here in California,” Yandel said.
Program leader Michael Downin was able to give the students a local perspective since he’s from New Orleans and has deep roots in the area. He was proud to talk about the resilience of the local communities and said the students were very thoughtful when they learned about the impact of events like Hurricane Katrina.
“The students were very compassionate. When they saw a film on the hurricane, everyone was crying… and they started asking deep questions to really understand the situation post-Katrina,” Downin said.
Afterwards the students got busy scraping, priming and painting a home in the St. Bernard District that was hard hit by Hurricane Katrina and the economic challenges that followed. Downin said they worked “like they were born to paint.”
LJCDS administrator Meghan Edwards, who was a chaperone, says it was really helpful to have a local resident leading the program. Downin has worked as a teacher, coach and school leader for decades and gave the students a perspective they couldn’t get in a book.
“It really helped to have a program leader who had that lived experience and was able to share what he’s seen in New Orleans in terms of changes over time,” Edwards said.
It also helped that the students had classroom discussions before coming to New Orleans so they were prepared for their volunteer roles. One key goal was to ensure students knew that they were not coming to a project site to save the day but to learn from the community leaders.
Edwards says she saw how much the students embraced this concept while on the trip. It’s among the reasons she’s such a strong proponent of hands-on learning opportunities like this.
“When you break out of a school mindset and you have kids outside, you start to see all kinds of new strengths come out… It’s where a lot of the ‘aha’ moments happen and the real learning unfolds,” Edwards said.
The educational opportunities for the students extended beyond the service project to other aspects of life in New Orleans. During the program, the students also visited the Whitney Plantation where they got a perspective on slavery, and they were taught about environmental racism.
Learning About Slavery & Cancer Alley
The stop at the Whitney Plantation came at the end of the program. On that site, generations of Africans and their descendents were enslaved to plant and maintain indigo, rice, and sugar crops. The guides there are dedicated to teaching visitors about slavery.
“It was such a hard experience for me to step on those grounds and hear about what happened on the plantation,” Yandel said.
Edwards says the guide at the Whitney Plantation also did a great job teaching the students about contemporary issues that have deep historical roots, such as environmental racism. The plantation is located in an area in Louisiana that is sometimes referred to as “Cancer Alley.”
The area now has a number of factories, including ones that make plastics, which has negatively affected the local residents. The guide’s discussion prompted the chair of LJCDS’ science department to do a follow up session on environmental racism.
Edwards says they pulled the kids back together a week or two after the travel program for reflection on the topic.
“We did a sort of debrief. We asked them questions like, What are your major takeaways? What surprised you? What are you perhaps inspired to do? What commitments can you make to continue to explore so this isn’t just an experience that is one and done?” Edwards said.
One rule that made it easier for students to absorb the experience and reflect was Edwards’ technology ban during the program. This ensured that they had no distractions.
“They grumble about it at the beginning, but they actually really appreciate having that forced separation, and I think it helps keep them be present in the experience and actually communicate with one another versus thinking about what they’re posting,” Edwards said
This allowed the students to also to fully focus on other aspects of the local scenery as they enjoyed lighter-hearted moments during the program.
Alligators, Beignets and More
One the highlights of the program even for local program leader Michael Downin was an airboat tour of the bayou. He had never been in a boat in the bayou waters in his lifetime. During that journey the students were able to see a number of alligators.
The teens also took a steamboat tour and enjoyed the local architecture and music. Yandel also mentioned that “of course” they had local deep fried pastries called beignets. She says overall the program gave them many moments they just could not get in the classroom.
“It allowed us to see more of the world and for more visual learning rather than just textbook-type learning,” Yandel said.
This is why Edwards has been a long-time proponent of travel. She’s multilingual and has worked in multiple countries. This has made her passionate about students learning about the world outside their front door.
“It helps them to build a sense of independence being away from home – a sense of agency and power and confidence in themselves that they are able to do hard things and that they’re able to learn new and novel things,” Edwards said.
That’s the ultimate goal of Rustic’s global advisors who customize programs for schools and groups every day. For more information, view our programs for educators here.
Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.