A group of mostly Black students from Indianapolis Public School gathered for what seemed like a normal party. They ate pizza, talked and listened to music played by a DJ, but they also weighed suitcases to ensure they were light enough for international travel. This party was a farewell to Thrival Academy students who were leaving for a three-month trip to Thailand the next day.
“We’re going to an elephant sanctuary” Sterling Moore Jr., a Thrival student, said. “I’m going to watch elephants. Elephants are my mom’s favorite animal, so I can’t wait to take a lot of pictures for her.”
Thrival began as an IPS program and evolved into an innovation network high school this school year. The school is located on the Arsenal Technical High School campus. Students at Thrival began the school year by taking classes locally and learning how their background contributed to their identities and sense of self. Moore appreciated the smaller classes, in particular, as they helped him improve his grades and get As all semester.
After a semester locally, Thrival students will spend three months in Thailand. They will stay in different rural villages, live with Thai farmers, go camping, visit temples and experience Thai culture. Activities tie into IPS curriculum. For example, students will not only read about the Vietnam War, but will actually visit military bases involved in the conflict. Instead of merely learning the concepts of environmental conservation, Thrival students will see rural Thai towns put those ideas into practice. At the trip’s end, students create a capstone project, similar to a documentary, showing what they learned.
“We’re not going to be tourists,” Micheal Bienz, a social studies teacher, said. “We’re going to be learners.”
Many students don’t mind the academic aspect to their trip. In fact, they’re looking forward to it. Jerren Lewis, a junior, said he is excited to learn about the agriculture in Thailand and meet new people while traveling.
Thrival doesn’t cost parents a nickel because the school is funded through other means. As part of IPS, the district pays teacher salaries and administrative costs, Thrival World Academies, the national organization Thrival Indy operates under, buys the tickets. Philanthropy and donations cover other travel costs. Rustic Pathways, Thrival’s partner organization, offers teen-focused travel programs and handles security concerns.
“I feel like as African-Americans, typically we don’t have as many opportunities as everyone else, or we don’t get to travel as much as everyone else, so having that extra experience under your belt makes you more marketable as a person,” math teacher Angela Cox said.
While traveling helps teach children about other people principal India Hui asserts it also teaches students about themselves. After seeing new ways of living, students become more aware of their own cultures.
“Being able to experience a completely different culture, they see a reflection of themselves,” Hui said. “They understand more about what it means to be American, what it means to be African-American, what it means to be a teenager. All of these things are extreme identity exploration.”
Interactions with Thais often can speak to the teenagers’ own experiences in impactful ways. For example, last year students stayed with the Radical Grandma Collective, a group of elderly Thai women protesting mining. Students were devastated to leave the grandmas, but Hui says one was crying especially hard because he never experienced a grandmother-grandchild relationship until the trip.
“His grandparents are in Mexico, so he never had a relationship with a grandmother like he had a relationship with his grandmom in Thailand,” Hui said.
Moore notes an important relationship Thrival students develop is with each other. They started the school year a divided group of students from different schools, but they grew close over the year.
“Closer and closer to the trip, we come to develop this family and get rid of a lot of animosity,” Moore said.
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.