Emotional growth, life skills part of Future School summer outdoor program

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 788 views 

Future School of Fort Smith students and staff participated in summer outdoor programs.

A summer outdoor program offered through Future School of Fort Smith serves two purposes – to allow students from across the region a chance to have an epic outdoor summer experience while recruiting for the school.

Future School of Fort Smith is a public charter school in Fort Smith established in 2016. The school has 300 students in ninth through 12th grade.

An outdoor education program at the school has two classes for students – an entry level class that focuses on teaching students to be responsible for public lands, needed skills for backpacking, rock climbing, camping and kayaking, and a second-year class where students take their new skills and learn how to teach others. There are 12 spots available for the two summer trips because of staffing, and gear. The staff ratio is one staff member to every four students.

In the summer, instructor Brett Roberts expands the program to allow any student in the area in ninth through 12th grade to experience five days of backpacking or kayaking. This summer students kayaked an average of 10 miles a day on the Buffalo River to earn their 50-mile challenge patch in recognition of the Buffalo National River’s 50-year anniversary. If you complete 50 miles self-propelled within the Buffalo National River you get a 50-mile challenge patch, Roberts said.

Because of the extreme heat, the 5-day backpacking trip this summer, which is typically the second trip of the summer, was a little different, with students camping at Shores Lake hiking to the waterfall, kayaking on the lake, repelling and rock climbing, and fly-fishing.

“With a week of 115 degree weather, we had to rethink things to keep the kids safe and to ensure they had accessible water.”

The programs are open to any student, not just Future School students, Roberts said.

“It’s one of our recruitment programs. But it also serves to teach the students and allow them an outdoor experience. It’s a summer learning program,” she said.

Roberts’ main focus on her outdoor programming is equity, making things accessible to all students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Everything we do is free, and it’s getting kids who most likely would not have the opportunity to go outside for a variety of reasons – socioeconomic reasons, lack of skills or ability, a chance to have these high adventure outdoor trips. It allows them to experience these types of things in a low risk setting,” Roberts said. “Lots of kids have never left Fort Smith or maybe even their neighborhood or part of town. This shows them what Arkansas has to offer in terms of outdoor recreation and what options are out there, what kinds of things you can do outside.”

The program provides everything the students need for the trip, including gear, instruction and food.

“Only thing kids have to provide is clothing. And I’m working on that, to get us some clothing and good shoes for our kids. That’s one of our biggest needs right now, getting appropriate clothing and footwear for kids so not ruining their school shoes,” Roberts said.

Roberts also would like to see more representation in the group of Black and Hispanic students.

“I think it’s important to have representation of those who like them,” Roberts said. “So many times there is this stereotype of who can do this, who will do this. But we want it to be more representative, more diverse.”

In addition to teaching outdoor skills, the program includes social emotional growth. Students identify goals to work on with their group and to work on personally. Personal goals include  community culture growth, personal growth, relationship with nature and open goals, Roberts said.

Students take a social emotional survey at the beginning of the trip and at the end. They rate themselves on a series of topics and meet with staff members who also rate them.

“And we compare, and we talk,” Roberts said. “At the end of the trip, we do it again. I actually look for numbers to drop. They are being more reflective, more introspective. They are actually thinking about these things, and their perspective changes.”

Students then make an action plan they can use in their daily lives.

“The action plans are to take learning from the field, where it is relatively easy because there are no distractions. There are no cell phones, no Snapchat or Instagram. They don’t have a TV to watch or YouTube or whatever they do. A majority of our kids have a pretty chaotic life. They don’t always have a very structured parental unit, guardian unit, so it’s putting them in an environment that has some pretty rigid structure but allows them to grow,” Roberts said. “It forces them away from ambivalence. They see, ‘If I don’t change, my life is going to keep doing this thing.’”

Crystal Echols, an English teacher at the Future School, sent her 15-year-old daughter Onesty Thomas on one of the excursions this summer.

“She wanted to do the kayaking trip, but I wasn’t sure about that. I was a little nervous about her being on water for the entire trip. But I want her to be able to do a trip, so I agreed to the backpacking one. I grew up with Girl Scouts. I grew up being outdoors. I want my children to experience that too.”

Echols said the two have had many conversations about it since.

“I think she is communicating more since she came back,” Echols said. “I will say, I think she thinks about things a little more (since coming back from the trip) compared to just acting or reacting. I think she learned to process her thoughts.”

The experience was much different from the sports activities and sports-related trips her children have taken in the past, and she is eager for her two other children to attend similar trips in the future. She has also given her permission for Thomas to be able to attend the kayaking trip next summer.

Thomas said with no family plans to go out of town this summer and with the COVID-19 pandemic having disrupted much over the past two years, she really wanted to participate in the outdoor program adventures this summer.

“At first I was a little scared. That first night, I worried if a bear might be outside our tent. But after the first night, it was all OK. I had a lot of fun,” she said.

Of the lessons learned over the course of the five days, Thomas said the main one was not to judge people.

“We talked about that a lot. Everyone there was just really nice. It was a great experience,” she said.

Thomas has plans to go on at least one of the adventures next summer and said she thinks the school’s summer outdoor program is very important to the community as a whole.

“There are so many kids who don’t go do things outdoors. I think it’s something they need to try,” she said.