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Sean Lee and Alijandra Calvillo, two students from the Pagosa Springs High School Pirate Achievement Center, recently joined their teacher, Marty Borges, in making a presentation to the Archuleta School District 50 Joint Board of Education concerning the All Star Grand Canyon trip they made last spring with some of their fellow students from the PAC class.
“There are lessons that, when they are presented and practiced correctly, can pay out extraordinary dividends to our students in the form of success in many areas,” Borges said. “These dividends include academics and job opportunities, and help our students’ and community’s future.”
The PAC is an alternative high school program housed in a back building on the high school campus, with a strong outdoor and experiential learning component. The PAC area comprises several rooms, and one wall of the main PAC classroom is lined with computer terminals where a handful of students work at their own pace.
Five years ago, Borges partnered with the school board, district administrators and a group of community members to conceive the model for the program. A full-time therapist, Stewart Bellina, was hired to co-teach and direct the program with Borges, and to provide daily counseling for the students.
“What I’m speaking of is characters,” Borges explained to the board at its December meeting. “The focus of a lot of the lessons on this trip was on what character is — from compassionate perseverance to teamwork and leadership to putting forth an honest effort and just plain doing the right thing when no one is watching. It was amazing seeing these kids do all of that on this trip. I was very much impressed.”
In a follow-up interview the next week in his office behind the auto shop classroom, Borges explained that his role is to be involved in the lives of his students, to act as a liaison between the school and the other entities that affect his students — be it parents, social services, probation officers, or others. He also talked about using “wilderness therapy” to make connections with his students and to build relationship.
“First and foremost,” Borges explained at the school board meeting, “those 45 miles and five days of hiking and 1,100 feet of elevation gain and descent in Grand Canyon National Park were designed to build character.”
Before Borges showed a brief movie of the trip, he handed out DVD copies of the presentation to all of the board members and Superintendent Mark DeVoti, thanking them for the opportunity to give that experience to his students.
The movie included testimonials and commentary from all of the students and chaperones on the trip about their activities, including hiking and rock climbing, and the lessons they learned from them. At one point in the movie, the camera captured a trailhead sign on the canyon rim that read, “Going down is optional. Climbing back up is mandatory.” The PAC kids seemed to understand it was a metaphor for life, as well.
“You know,” one student commentator on the movie’s soundtrack said, “sometimes when I had some down time and I thought about this canyon, I just thought it was amazing how all of this was even possible. I mean, how can a river shape something like this? It just lets me know that with time, anything is possible.”
“The timing of this presentation is perfect,” board member Greg Schick explained once the movie stopped, “because in the CASB (Colorado Association of School Boards) meeting we went to a couple of weeks ago, one of the guest speakers talked about character, and building character, and his words were, as you said, ‘Character is doing the right thing when nobody is watching.’
“One of the other things we heard at that meeting is we need to engage our students in any way we can.” Schick turned to Lee and Calvillo, the two PAC students with Borges. “Were you engaged?” Everyone laughed. “It was worthwhile, wasn’t it?”
“It was amazing,” Calvillo affirmed.
“The trip for me,” Lee added, “was the first day when we got there and saw the river. We camped at the rim, at a camp site, but we hiked to the rim to see it, and we got there just in time to see the sunset. It was weird. I got a feeling from it. It was cool.”
When asked if they had hiked from rim to rim, Borges responded, “No, we went, at the most, three to five days off trail. I put it out there. I challenged them. Three of the days we were definitely off trail. We went to a place we called the mine field.”
“Oh yeah,” Lee jumped in. “There were cactuses everywhere.”
“That canyon that we rapelled down into,” Borges referred to a scene from the movie, “that was probably six miles where we had eight pools we had to swim through, and shuttle our packs through. I kind of had an idea how to get the packs through, but this was their trip, not mine, so I asked, ‘How are we going to do this without getting everything wet?’
“They problem-solved collectively for about twenty minutes, and then Ali finally came up with the idea of floating them on our pads.” The movie had shown the students swimming through a pool, pushing their inflatable sleeping pads in front of them with their backpacks floating on top.
Borges and his two students then laughingly told of encountering a crazy person who had been out in the backcountry and off trail for over 28 days, who was so happy to see them because he hadn’t had any human contact in all of that time.
In the later interview with SUN staff, Borges explained that he had worked for the National Park Service as a guide in the Grand Canyon for many years before becoming a teacher in Pagosa Springs, and that he was very familiar with the area where he took the PAC students. While he was completely comfortable with the environment and sure of the student’s safety, the point of the lesson was to push the students out of their own comfort zone and teach them how to work together as a team to overcome adversity.
“She ended up having so many blisters on her feet,” Borges said of Calvillo, “she hiked out of the canyon, when we got back onto the trail (we were off the trail for three days), in my flip flops. The majority of the trip we were on was off trail. It was amazing what I saw. They stepped up to it. That’s something I learned. If you put it in front of them, they are going to step up to the challenge.”
Borges then relayed his perspective of that first night, when the students hiked out to the rim to see the sunset while he stayed back at camp to double check all of the gear and get his ducks in a row. All of the adult volunteers, who were interns with the school psychologist, accompanied the students to the rim and later confirmed their story.
A rude tourist met them at the rim and was harassing them, telling them they needed to go away and to get back on their bus. When the students returned to camp they bragged to Borges about how well they handled the situation and how they didn’t say anything back to the rude person.
“I got mad,” Borges laughed. “I’m glad I wasn’t there or I probably would have said something to him.” Everyone laughed again. “But it just showed their integrity, and I think if we do set that bar high, our students will go up there and achieve it. They will, and they did.”
Lee, who had taken a break from his job to come to the school board meeting to make the presentation with Borges and was in a hurry to get back to work, took a moment to leave the board with one last thought. “I don’t know if I should say this, because I’m not sure if it is too negative, but if it wasn’t for the PAC, I probably wouldn’t still be in high school.”
“Same here,” Calvillo agreed. “I probably would have given up. They have kept me in school for a lot longer than I expected to be.”
“I would also like to request at this time some out-of-state travel for this spring,” Borges said, “to go along with expeditionary learning lessons that we’re planning.
“Over the next semester, three days a week, we are going to do thematic lessons on the settling of the West and how rivers were used, water politics, occupation, and all of those things, and then in the spring we will do a trip to Northern Arizona, to a place called Grand Gulch, which probably has more inundated Anasazi ruins than any place in the world.
“We plan on spending three days there and then doing a tour of Glen Canyon Dam and talking about the water issues related to dams and how it affects the West. Our river down here is part of that whole river system.”
After the follow up interview, Borges gave the SUN staff a tour of his classroom, including the industrial kitchen where the PAC students learn how to prepare meals from local restaurant owners who volunteer their time to teach mini-lessons.
In another room, the students were constructing a sea kayak from a kit donated to the program. The plan is to auction off the kayak once it is completed to help raise funds for their next trip. Borges also explained that all of the camping gear used in the PAC program has been donated by either him or a variety of local benefactors.
A review of school district finances revealed that less than $50 worth of food was procured from the school cafeteria program for the trip, and only one district Suburban was used for transportation, at a cost of $112.50 — a relatively small price tag for such a valuable student learning experience.