Education Through Experience

In its tenth year, the innovative Palma Scholars Program continues to inspire students and influence curriculum

In the decade since the Palma Scholars Program was introduced in the Upper School, Catlin Gabel students have engaged in hundreds of community engagement projects in Portland, and traveled thousands of miles to hear points of view that differ from their own. And though the program incorporates studies in history, politics, literature, arts, sports, media, and current events, it’s the experiences students have outside of campus that ultimately prove to be the most educational. “If you want to wrestle with contemporary issues, you have to be engaging with divergent perspectives,” says Program Director Dave Whitson. “Why be bound by the four walls?”

True to the educational laboratory model, the Palma Scholars Program was developed as an iterative project, where theories of education could be tested on a small scale, and the results tracked and used to improve and expand the program. A decade in, the impact and influence of the program is apparent throughout the Upper School; there are more interdisciplinary courses, and an increased emphasis on competency-based learning, where students think less about individual assignments and more about their individual skill growth over time, and how to take ownership of their education.

Launched in 2012, the program retains its original structure, designed for incoming ninth graders, new to Catlin Gabel, who are chosen for their potential in the four program pillars: academics, leadership, athletics, and community service. To encourage the development of personal interests, Palma scholars can opt out of some graduation requirements, and in their senior year they engage in a self-designed Capstone project that often involves community engagement. The Palma Seminar explores a specific theme and is open to any student in the Upper School. As part of the Palma program, each cohort travels together to explore aspects of the seminar theme.

“It’s a chance to develop all of these different skills in different areas,” recalls Isabel Rooper ’16, a member of one of the first Palma Scholars cohorts. “You don’t have to be the best athlete. You don’t have to be the best leader. Every Palma scholar is going to be different and have strengths or weaknesses in each of these areas. You have plenty of time to grow those skills. And if one of those pillars is never going to be your thing, that’s completely fine.”

Program graduate Maya Fernandez-Powell ’18 says, “It’s a unique opportunity. It’s really whatever you make it, and every student takes it in a very different direction. When I think about the things I’m doing now and interested in, it’s completely tied to what I discovered at Catlin because of the Palma program. It gave me a chance to explore things that matter to me.”

“We don’t want to force square pegs into round holes,” Dave says. “Let’s figure out what your gifts are, how to cultivate those. Let’s figure out how you're going to lead and, far more importantly, where you want to lead people. You have to start with a sense of who you are and what you care about.”

Identifying personal values is central to every aspect of the program, from the academic work—reading and discussions—to the decisions students make about the type of impact they want to have in the Portland community. For the Palma seminar based on “Crime and Punishment,” for example, students read and discussed the eponymous Dostoevsky novel and Kafka’s novel The Trial, then moved into discussions about systems of mass incarceration, and finally ventured out to have real-world experiences related to the content. “We got to visit people on death row in a prison in Clark County,” recalls Sophie Kruse ’21, “and talk to them about restorative justice, and the restorative justice initiatives they were doing. That was an incredibly educational experience.”

When the seminar topic was “Revolutionaries,” Anousha Greiveldinger ’20 teamed up with classmates to move unsold produce from farmers markets to homeless facilities. Luke Van Buskirk ’18 created a podcast that included interviews with homeless advocates. Sid Pai ’18 became a liaison for an organization that provides services to refugee families moving to Portland.

The Palma trips take the scholars even deeper into the seminar topic by providing opportunities to experience new environments and interact with people who live in communities far from Portland. For the “Sports and Human Rights” seminar, the scholars cohort went to Vancouver, British Columbia, to study relevant aspects of the coming Olympics, and for the “Crime and Punishment” seminar, the group took a trip to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee that included a visit to a maximum security prison. When the Palma seminar theme was “Divided States of America,” students traveled to eastern Oregon and spent several days living and working on family farms and ranches. “We learned what it’s like living out there,” Anousha says of the Oregon trip, “and what their thoughts are on different policies. I rode my first horse there, and helped them move their cattle around. Just spending a normal day with them was very eye opening. It’s really stuck with me.”

“They started to really understand where those beliefs came from at a deeper level,” Dave says, “because they spent time talking with the person instead of just reading and disparaging a tweet. You learn a lot by just having a conversation with people who have a different outlook.”