PORTLAND — Imagine you are 17, and a participant in a brand new school called the Field Academy.
You wake up on the floor of a church in Jackson, Miss., where you are are on a six-week field trip to study the civil rights movement.
Your teachers gather everyone together and go for a group run through the neighborhood surrounding the church. Afterwards, while eating breakfast, you discuss where that food is coming from. Then you head down to a local museum, leaf through original documents from the era, and talk to people who lived through it.
That night, you participate in a community dinner back at the church, which was an important organizational space during the 1960s, and listen to local residents compare the tensions of the civil rights era to the present day.
After your trip ends, you will return to your base camp at a farm in southern Maine, where you will resume studying coastal ecology and environmental history.
Between home stays, field trips and travel, the Field Academy might sound more like a study-abroad program than conventional high school. And that, say the three co-founders of the school, is exactly the idea.
“Why is it that we have such profound learning experiences in other countries and very few in our own?” asked Jen Lazar, 28, one of the three women who started the nascent Field Academy.
It was a rhetorical question, but co-founder Claire Hirschmann, 27, was ready with an answer.
“When you travel you assume this idea of adventure … but when you stay in your own country, that sense of adventure isn’t as inherent,” she said. “What would it be like to create that sense of brilliance around traveling within our own country and making the adventure of it part of everything you do?”
The Field Academy aims to put the sparkle back into not just domestic travel, but also staying put.
The women, along with co-founder Heather Foran, 28, who is currently teaching in Central America, envision a two-year program for 40 high school juniors and seniors. The students will divide their time between a farm in Maine and various destinations around the country, studying the history and landscape wherever they go.
The women are inspired by the idea that learning is most meaningful when students live in the places they study, and study the places they live.
“In school you’re theoretically learning about the places around you, but you’re in this concrete box … and there’s this difference between when you’re learning and when you’re living,” Hirschmann said.
Each co-founder came to this same realization separately, and as a result of different experiences.
For Hirschmann, it happened early. When she was in seventh grade, her parents pulled her out of school and took her on a five-month trip through Europe. She taught herself math along the way, but all other learning was grounded in the places they visited. For example, she studied World War I while walking through the former battlefields of Verdun, France.
While studying in Latin America in college, both Foran and Lazar fell in love with the idea of place-based learning, and wondered how to continue doing that at Williams College, where both were students.
After graduating, Lazar went on to work at DREAM, a mentoring program for low-income children in Vermont. It was there that she witnessed both the children and their college-aged mentors “do phenomenal learning and have incredible experiences” in a non-school environment.
DREAM also taught Lazar about fundraising, non-profit administration, and generally how make some of her ideas about experiential education into reality.
While Lazar was based in Vermont, Foran and Hirschmann met just after college while working for The Traveling School, a high school study-abroad program for girls. While taking students to South America and Africa, they talked about an idea Foran had had to start a domestic version of The Traveling School.
Upon returning to the U.S., Hirschmann said she and Foran decided to go for it. She earned her master’s degree in education while Foran kept working in the field of environmental education in Maine.
Meanwhile, in Vermont, Lazar was having a similar conversation with herself, unaware that two states over, her former college classmate Foran was discussing the same idea with Hirschmann.
Lazar said she asked herself, “do you really believe what you say you believe, because if you do, you should just go for it (and start a school).” She decided the first step would be to go to graduate school.
Here’s where the story gets spooky: Lazar and Hirschmann, who up to this point didn’t know each other, met on their first day of orientation at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. They laugh when they tell the story, finishing each other’s sentences.
“On the first day of orientation someone was like, you should meet this girl Jen, it sounds like you guys are thinking about the same things,” Hirschmann said.
So she introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Claire, and I’m starting a traveling high school in the U.S., what are you doing?”
Lazar’s response? “I’m … starting a traveling program in the U.S.”
The women said they stared at each other incredulously, then peppered the other with questions about the idea. Once they realized they both knew Foran, they all decided to work together to make the school a reality.
A year and a half later, the school has a name, a website, and a pilot program – a five-week study of New England that they hope to run this summer. While each woman still has another job – Foran at the Traveling School, Hirschmann at Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport, and Lazar as an educational research assistant – they are planning to completely focus on the Field Academy starting this summer.
They are trying to raise approximately $25,000 in scholarships for their summer program, and an additional $250,000 for the opening of the school, which they hope will happen in the fall of 2012.
Lazar said they recognize their time-line is ambitious, and there is still a lot to do. Just last week the women went on a scouting trip Downeast to find study areas for the summer trip. They’re still working on where to house the full-time school, and seeking partnerships with local farms.
But they seemed unfazed by the challenges ahead of them, and undaunted by leaving their steady jobs and committing to an uncertain future.
“If I can envision it, then it’s my responsibility to make it happen, particularly because I think it’s really powerful and I think it’s what the generation growing right now needs,” Hirschmann said.
“I think it’s important for the world writ large, or democracy, that people do what they think they can do, the bold visions that we have, that we actually try them,” Lazar said.
“I don’t know how many glorious ideas you get in one lifetime, so you should probably go after the ones that you’re at least aware of.”
Claire Hirschmann, left, and Jen Lazar are co-founders of the Field Academy. The women stand in front of a map in their Portland apartment, showing where students would travel while studying the civil rights movement. A third co-founder, Heather Foran, is not pictured.