West Valley News – Does Colorado have the answer?

I was finishing my soup at Henri’s and waiting for Peter Morales, Hard Core Gang Intervention Specialist Supervisor with Communities in Schools. In a few minutes he joined me and with excitement in his voice talked about his Colorado experience. He related his visit to a special program at Estes Park.

Peter sipped his soft drink and showed me the photos of the students and their activities at Eagle Rock School. Armed with a few questions I began to write down the successful efforts at Eagle Rock School.

The program at Eagle Rock School is funded through an initiative of the American Education Corporation, a 501(c )(3) subsidiary of American Honda Motor Company, that reaches out to teenagers with troublesome life styles. Each student must submit a letter stating why they should receive the $90,000 scholarship to attend the school. They are interviewed by a school representative before being accepted.

Peter began, “The forty-five students that are selected have not succeeded in a traditional academic setting and are behind in high school credits. Some of these young people, both boys and girls, 15-17 years of age might also have been expelled from their schools. Those selected must demonstrate a passion to change their lives. The program is year round with trimesters. It is residential and located in the community of Estes Park, Colorado.”

I interrupted, “How were you and Communities in Schools involved?

“I was introduced to Eagle Rock School by a co-worker, Miguel Flores. I sponsored two young men. It is a partnership between Honda and Communities in Schools. One student, 17 years old, has completed his 2nd year. The second one, a 15 year old, has just completed his second month. The two young men matched the criteria of this non-traditional program,” he replied.

“What is their non traditional program?” I inquired.

“The students take core academic classes like English, Science, History and Math. They take industrial arts classes. They study conservation practices. The students do small community projects like building a shed, a small barn, etc. The students work with an architect designing the project and after his approval complete the project. They learn their math and industrial skills as an integral part of the process. They learn team work as they complete a bridge or build a trail.”

“Are there any stated goals,” I asked.

Peter enthusiastically replied, “First, the students want to be there. They learn “to own their learning.” They are stimulated to keep their dreams and aspirations. Remember there are eight or less students to an individual house. Each “lodge” has house parents. They manage the “lodge.” It is an extended family. The girls live upstairs and the boys downstairs. The students model, practice, and learn new behaviors. No gang talk, no negative behavior only positive, up lifting and building self-image behaviors. By the way, the teachers and instructors also live at the school in the guest house.”

“Where do the teenagers come from?” I proceeded.

Peter responded, “The youth come from all over the United States. They are racially mixed. If the student completes the program and then decides and qualifies to go to college, Eagle Rock School will pay $5,500 to the college the students attends and $1,000 to the student when she/he attends graduate school.”

“Terrific,” I exclaimed. “Incarceration costs from $40,000 to $75,000 per year.”

“Wait, I haven’t told you the most exciting part of the program. It is the Wilderness Trip.” He continued, “12 to 24 students are split up into two patrols. Each patrol has two to three instructors. By the way, each instructor has at least 4 years of wilderness experience and are CPR certified. Two weeks before the trip the students learn about what food to pack, they prepare their equipment, they learn survival skills and the necessity for teamwork. They are then taken to a location in Utah, Colorado or Arizona to rough it for twenty-three days.”

“Is the trip taken at the beginning of their stay or near the end?” I asked.

“Near the beginning, but wait there is more. During the 1st week of the trip the students learn how to cook, pitch their own tent, first aid, mapping skills, hiking safety, rock climbing and off trail hiking. There’s more. After this week they hike to a pre-destined area where they get a hot meal and letters from home. Next the students are placed about 100 yards apart with their own 15’x15’ space for their individual tent and survival stuff. A mandated activity during this trip is keeping a daily journal. This journal might include their feelings of being alone, enjoying the wilderness, fears, anxieties, their reflections on their past or dreams of thoughts about their futures, etc.”

“Then what? Is there any thought of giving back to the land?”

“Definitely! The service portion of their experiences is in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The students clear trails, build bridges, plant trees, repair old hiking trails and other activities that teaches the students to give back to the land,” added Peter.

“What else happens during the Wilderness Trip?”

“At the end the students are dropped off about 6 miles away from the front of school. They are to run together to the school not as a race, but together as a class. At the gate the students are greeted by the principal, teachers, parents, mentors, sponsors, probation officers and others who are waiting for them. The students have no idea that all these persons of significance to them would be there.”

“Now it’s over?” I hesitated to ask.

“No. The weary students take long showers, eat a hot meal, and then gather by the fireside to begin to share their experiences that they noted in their daily journal. The students process their experiences for at least two weeks after the trip with their mentor, the house parents, or an instructor.”

I asked, “You were there as a sponsor? What is going to happen when your student returns to the Valley?”

“Good question. As a sponsor, I am responsible to place him on my caseload to provide him with all the transitional services he needs. This might be helping him with employment, getting him in a school, working with the parents, etc. Moreover, Communities in Schools will provide the wrap around services needed. A young person returning from Eagle Rock School has learned new life skills and begins to leave a destructive life style behind. He has learned how to lead a productive life.”

I questioned Peter, “In California, where are the programs that help self destructive and troublesome teenagers?”