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Pirate Achievement Center:
Getting students out to keep them in

For 19 high school students in Pagosa Springs, the days are anything but ordinary. In mid-October.

For instance, some attended a rafting excursion with their teacher on the San Juan river. In September, the entire group went on a three-day trip to the Pagosa Peak trailhead to learn about the outdoors.

The students who attended the trips are part of the Pirate Achievement Center, or PAC — a unique program at Pagosa Springs High School. The goal of the program is to keep students interested in school and help them with their academics so they can graduate with an official high school diploma.

“First things first,” the PAC brochure states. “There is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ at the PAC.”

For the students who might otherwise not attend school at all, who don’t live at home, or who had given up on pursuing their diploma, the PAC classroom is a place where they are offered the tools to learn both educational and workforce skills to help them continue on after their high school life.

Students usually arrive before 8 a.m. and work at center computers linked to the online Compass Learning system. The curriculum is similar to a home-schooling program — everyone completes the classes at their own pace and can go as slow or as fast as they need. Two mornings each week, students meet for a therapeutic group session facilitated by a licensed counselor, who works full-time at the center. The group sessions focus on healthy choices, life skills and goal setting. One morning a week, students participate in PAC time, where they might perform community service, prepare for an upcoming trip or participate in an outdoor lesson. Fridays are “Family Meal Day” when the students take turns helping to prepare their own lunches and serving them to the rest of the group.

Outdoor trips are a main part of the PAC educational experience. The expeditions are led by Marty Borges, one of two on-site teachers. Borges is also a trained EMT with extensive guiding experience and outdoor certifications. By challenging the students and allowing them to experience the outdoors, the process allows students to develop responsibility, teamwork, self-reliance, compassion and environmental and community stewardship.

During the September camping trip, group members packed their own equipment, hiked to the base of Pagosa Peak, set up camp and made their own dinners. The trip was planned for three days, but a bad hail storm forced the group to hike out a day early.

PAC student Christian, a sophomore, participated in the hike and said the two-day trip brought together the separate social groups that normally wouldn’t hang out. She said the best part was that the bond lasted after the students returned to school.

“Everyone here does classes at their own pace,” explained Christian, who is taking three classes at PAC and one at the high school. Because she has caught up with her online classes in government, biology and algebra, she was spending her time working on a project for her PSHS tech class — a two-minute video that had to be edited with added effects. Christian has been attending the PAC for two months and had previously left PSHS to do online home-schooling.

“I missed the socialization of being at public school,” she recalled. Christian was told about PAC and, after filling out the enrollment form and interviewing with the teachers, she was admitted to the program.

Because the learning atmosphere is so different and relaxed, the PAC teachers like to have their students enrolled in at least one block of classes at the high school.

“Life is not always how we want it,” says Stewart Bellina, a full-time teacher and counselor at the center. Although the alternative learning program is suitable for the PAC students, both Bellina and Borges want their students to participate in classes and lunches with the students at Pagosa Springs High School, not only to keep them active with their peer group, but to build the social skills that will aid them in a future career or college education.

PAC student Justin is 17 and his favorite subject is math, but on this day he is working on his English credit by taking a quiz in communication strategies.

“The class is about behavior,” he said, “or how to speak politely to people.” Justin has lived in Pagosa Springs for three years and was one of the students who participated in the San Juan rafting trip in mid-October. Justin liked the trip, except for the rain. “It was cool, but not too bad,” he said of his three days on the river.

Sitting at the next computer is 16-year-old Devin, who is working on a physical science lesson. She pulls off her headphones and explains that the online classes feature the teacher talking while the notes for the lesson are on the side of the screen.

“You can listen along, or just read and take notes,” she says. The notebook on her lap is filled with neatly-written text to help her remember the lessons that comprise several videos.

Borges explains that students choose their classes based on their graduation needs. The teachers make sure students have the required credits to receive their diploma. For Brandon, age 16, the morning class is not coming easily and he is staring at an empty desktop screen on the computer in front of him. Having already completed his measurements and angles, he is supposed to be working on algebra.

“I don’t like math, period,” Brandon states as he gets up to pursue a project in another room.

In addition to their high school grades and online curriculum, PAC students are also graded after their outdoor trips. Passing marks for leadership, teamwork, effort and Leave No Trace earn them PAC elective credits, or they can use them for a physical education credit. The four categories are also used as grading tools for the PAC students themselves. When students earn high marks in each category, they can rise through the ranks from “deck hands” to “Pirates.” By exhibiting leadership, responsibility and teamwork, following the rules, showing up on time and putting in an honest effort, the student achieves Pirate status and earns privileges at the center such as full access to the on-site kitchen, getting to wear a hat in class, having music while they study, or the ability to log on to their MySpace account. The deck hands get to spend each day in the office with Mr. Borges.

Jeff is 18 and is wearing a hat while he works on his math elective. At the high school, he is taking senior writing and senior speech. Because he is behind in his school district credits, Jeff comes to PAC to catch up because he is able to take extra credits. During one period at PAC, he can accelerate his learning and earn three credits through the online program. He hopes to earn enough credits to graduate by the end of the school year.

The PAC program has come a long way in the three short years since it was simply one class period a day, with a classroom in an area that used to be a garage.

The program began as a response to the growing need to retain students who appeared to be struggling to stay in school and graduate. With a large grant from the Charles J. Hughes Foundation, the vocational arts building was remodeled and is now a permanent home for PAC students. Bellina stresses that the program could not have been possible without both community donations and visionary leadership in the school district.

“This type of program is not common in a small town,” she says, and her position as a teacher/counselor is a perfect fit. Bellina has a master’s degree in counseling and her graduate thesis was on “alternative education possibilities for at-risk youth.”

Now in its second year as a full-time program, the Pirate Achievement Center receives frequent visits from representatives of other school districts that are interested in using the model to help remediate their dropout rates.

Both Bellina and Borges believe the outdoor component is the most important part of the program and they say that, although a standard school structure works great for 30 percent of high school kids, another 50 percent muddle through the system while the rest struggle or just leave. The outdoor aspect of the PAC program pulls kids out of their environment and puts them into something new, where they are more reachable and teachable. The drama of their “normal” lives is gone and they can start with something new.

Four students were in the first graduating class from PAC last year and all of them received their diplomas. One of the graduates has enrolled in a junior college, another is a local firefighter. A 100-percent graduation rate is the goal again this year.

“The main aspect of our program is to get kids to school,” Borges emphasized, “and to get them to graduate.”

To demonstrate their hard work, the Pirate Achievement Center students and faculty invite the public to attend an open house on Thursday, Nov. 5. The students will serve an authentic backcountry meal that they will prepare themselves, followed by a presentation.

If you are interested in attending, call 264-2231, Ext. 247, to let them know how many will be present.