Aaron Rodriguez, an eighth-grader at the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, readily admits he would rather watch Netflix than go on a nature hike.
“I’m a city boy,” he says.
But last month he and 11 other students at the McCormack embarked on a field trip that took them into the rain forest in Costa Rica, where they lived off the grid on a reserve reachable by a 45-minute boat ride. There, they saw green parrots, a king toucan, a scorpion, and leafcutter ants. They also heard the haunting calls of howler monkeys.
Along the way, Rodriguez discovered that “nature is beautiful” and gained a greater understanding of human influence on the environment.
Across Boston, students are increasingly traveling overseas on field trips — part of a concerted effort to get them to broaden their outlook on life. The school system often turns to outside organizations to help pay for the trips, helping to double the number of students traveling overseas and vastly expand the number of schools offering trips.
In a system like Boston, where about half of the 56,000 students live in poverty, the trips help to even the playing field between city kids and some of their affluent suburban peers, whose family vacations and school trips can take them to Paris, London, or Rome.
Boston Green Academy students have journeyed into the hilltops of Guatemala to help impoverished families install stoves and water filtration systems. New Mission High School basketball players have gone to China to compete. Madison Park Technical Vocational High School students have flown to the Dominican Republic to teach the importance of oral hygiene, washing hands, and planning meals.
In some cases, the trips seem like adventures inspired by novelist Herman Melville, such as last summer, when Boston Day and Evening Academy students boarded a nearly century-old fishing schooner bound for Nova Scotia.
Other trips provide students a chance to retrace history. This summer, about 50 students will head to Ghana to study the origins of the slave trade.
“A lot of our students have not traveled outside Massachusetts. For them to go down to Costa Rica helps them envision a bigger world and future for themselves that goes beyond their neighborhoods,” said Sean Guthrie, principal of Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot K-8 School. “It’s a real motivator for them in school.”
For years, most international trips were offered only by the city’s three exam schools and a few others. But in the past three years, 30 Boston schools have offered at least one foreign excursion.
While the number of students taking far-flung trips remains small, it has nearly doubled over the past three years to 625, said Brittany Wheaton Calloway, the school system’s director of global education.
The trips cost up to $3,000 per student. School officials have helped to ease the financial burden by partnering with organizations that offer discounted trips. In other cases, students fund-raise — from bake sales to crowd funding — while several teachers plan the trips years in advance to give students time to save money.
Still, a demographic gap exists among student travelers, with Latino and black students less likely to take a trip than white and Asian students, according to school data. Female students are also more likely to travel, representing 62 percent of all travelers.
‘Every hike we go on is a science lesson. Every animal we see is a science lesson.’
School officials are stepping up efforts to recruit more boys as well as students of color.
Boston isn’t the only school system stepping up its encouragement of foreign field trips, according to EF Education First, a global company with offices in Boston that focuses on educational travel.
The increase comes amid heightened concerns over terrorism, causing school systems to increasingly rely on such specialized companies to organize trips. These companies have the ability to change itineraries if world events arise; some can even switch destinations to other regions in the world.
“You would be surprised how little of an impact world events have had,” said Kate Berseth, executive vice president at EF. “We are being sensitive about the destinations we are going to, but I also think because there is terrorism everywhere, even in the US, people are being careful and aware, but people are not stopping what they are doing.”
The Boston public school system began ramping up foreign travel in 2010 after then-superintendent Carol Johnson established the office of global education. Johnson was inspired by a student exchange between Ghana and Boston and wanted more students to have similar opportunities.
Since then, the Boston School Committee has pushed to ensure the trips are educationally based — encouraging students to stay with host families, perform community service, or study something unique about a country, such as its culture, politics, or environment.
“I’m impressed every time I see a service trip where kids can immerse themselves in the culture and do something like build a water supply or housing,” said Michael Loconto, School Committee chairman. “I’d like to see us continue to push the envelope on what we can have our kids do and learn.”
Some of the growth in travel has happened organically among teachers and administrators. Kris Grymonpre, a science teacher, had traveled to Costa Rica when he was a teacher at Young Achievers in Mattapan, and he loved the experience so much that when he moved to the McCormack Middle School, he decided to lead trips there.
The McCormack serves about 370 students in grades 6-8 in the Harbor Point area of Dorchester, and many live in some of the most violent neighborhoods in Boston. Some 90 percent of students live in poverty, have a disability, or do not speak English fluently.
“There is something magical that happens when kids are immersed in the environment,” Grymonpre said. “Every hike we go on is a science lesson. Every animal we see is a science lesson.”
More than a dozen students packed a conference room at the McCormack recently and talked exuberantly about their nine-day experience in Costa Rica. The trip cost $600 per student, with another portion of the cost provided by O2 For Life Rainforest Foundation, which has a 500-acre rain forest in Costa Rica, where staff helped the students research scientific concepts, wildlife, and ecosystems.
Students said they were shocked by the clear-cutting of palm trees and felt guilty afterward when they read the label on the package of crackers they were eating and saw it contained palm oil. They also received lessons about how the destruction of palm trees or the removal of certain species — often because of hunting — can have a ripple effect on ecosystems.
The trip also provided ample time for self-discovery. For some students, it was the first time they had ever flown. They also had to hand over their cellphones and navigate a world without instant messaging and social media. In their downtime, they turned to board games or cards.
“There were times we sat around and just talked for like an hour until dinner,” Josiehanna Colon said. “When the phone was taken from me, it was hard, and I was kind of dramatic about it – ‘Aaaahhhh my phone!’ ‘Aaaahhhh no communication!’ But then when we got them back, I didn’t want my phone back.”
Many students said they could not believe how fresh the fruits and vegetables were and how healthy the food was. Some of the boys said they gorged throughout the trip.
“They have the juiciest pineapples,” Byron Tippins said. “Here in Boston [the fruit] is all flavorless and nasty.”
But he added, “When I got back here I speed-dialed Domino’s and got me a pizza. I needed some fast food in my belly. I was tired of eating healthy.”James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.