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Friday, July 22, 2005

Literacy program combines books with backpacking

Bonanza News Editor
May 29, 2005

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Ten high school students from the North Shore and Truckee will have an opportunity to spend six weeks learning about the environment and fine-tuning their language skills. But this is no ordinary summer school.

The Adventure, Risk and Challenge leadership and literacy program will bring together North Shore English language learners for an intense academic program combined with backcountry expeditions that organizers say prepares students for challenges at school and in life.

"The idea is to build a community of kids who have shared a similar experience," said Katie Fesus, the program's founder and organizer. "It's important to pay attention to this population and offer them opportunities to succeed."

The program - which organizers hope to expand to other locations in California - gives 10 students the opportunity to participate in six-weeks of literacy and science programs, with more than a little adventure mixed in, at UC Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station near Truckee. The field station provides a location for the program and brings in researchers to teach the students about the environment.

Fesus, who has a master's in education from Stanford, chooses 10 students in ESL programs with the hope that the six-week program will push those students to the next level academically.

"It's not for kids who just arrived (in the United States)," Fesus said. "It's for potential leaders in the Hispanic community."

Last year, nine students from the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District gathered at the field station for ARC's pilot program. This year Fesus opened the program up to interested Incline Village students.

Incline High School ESL teacher Paul Nolan said he's excited about the program because there's nothing like it in Lake Tahoe. He said his students often "backslide" during the summer - forgetting some of their English by the time they return to school in the fall.

"Most of these students would probably work this summer where they would not speak English at all," Nolan said.

Fesus started last year's program with the hope that students would improve their test scores and prepare for the California high school exit exam, and according to the statistics she boasts from last year, the program was a success.

From the beginning of summer to the end of the program, some students improved their scores by 18 percent. Four of the five students eligible to take the California exam passed.

Fesus also makes sure each academic component of the program includes a final project. The group publishes a book at the end of the program with essays and poems by each student that have gone through numerous peer and teacher reviews. They also create bilingual interpretive signs for the Sagehen field station - the program's base camp.

But the program is not all books and lectures. Outdoor adventure forms a major component of the program, which organizers say gives the students not only a new experience, but helps build confidence in all areas of their lives.

"These kids don't have a lot of self confidence, they don't have a lot of leadership skills," said Sagehen manager Jeff Brown, who has been involved in the ARC program. "All of these things are designed to give them a sense of self confidence and give them leadership skills."

Brown said last year's program was an overwhelming success, and part of that success is due to the outdoor leadership and adventure component.

"Research has proven that if you do that you can really engage kids," he said.

The students start the program with an eight-day backpacking trip - something many of them have never experienced. Throughout the six weeks the students rock climb, kayak and complete a final expedition.

Just as important, Fesus said, the program aims to engage English language learners with their surroundings.

"We're introducing them to the lake in a way they haven't been before," Fesus said. "A lot of these kids live in small communities and they don't experience what's around them."

Nolan said that community often only includes family and friends who don't speak English. He also said students' lack of fluent English skills can keep them from trying something new.

"I think it's difficult for language learners to go out and try things they've never tried."

The Adventure, Risk and Challenge leadership and literacy program raised $40,000 in 2005 to support this year's program. But organizer Katie Fesus said the program still needs additional funding for this summer. She's also hoping to secure long-term funding to create a sustainable program.

Fesus estimates it costs $3,500 to support one student for the six-week program.

For information about ARC or to donate to the program, contact Fesus at (530) 583-2520.


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