Pirate Achievement Center:
a different approach, a different journey

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” quoted Shane Madsen last Wednesday night when the new Pirate Achievement Center (the PAC) held a dinner and open house for friends and supporters of the alternative program at the Pagosa Springs High School.

For Madsen and his fellow students of the PAC, the first steps of their latest educational journey have been sure-footed and good.

Since September, a group of as many as 15 students from the high school have been having a very different kind of school year than the ones they’ve experienced in the past. The PAC is an alternative high school program, housed in an adjunct building on the campus of the high school, with a strong outdoor and experiential learning component, combined with go-at-your-own-pace online academics.

Pagosa teacher Marty 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. Together they work Monday through Friday, both indoors and out with students who applied last spring for a place in the program.

“We see a huge difference when we get these kids outside, away from their normal environment,” Borges said. “They engage more with what we’re teaching them. It’s important to give them space to let go of their …”

“… Drama,” Bellina finished the sentence for Borges, supplying the word he was looking for during our interview. Borges and Bellina have already formed a strong partnership in their work together for these students. It’s a very important element for the program to have a teacher and a full-time therapist who work so closely together, Borges and Bellina said. “We take turns taking the leadership versus the supportive role, we bounce ideas off each other. There are so many decisions to make on a daily basis with a start-up program like this. Doing it as a team is important,” they said.

Teamwork, of course, is also a huge theme for the students of the PAC. The program was formed on the axis of four key principles — teamwork, leadership, honest effort and leave-no-trace ethics — that guide the students and teachers in their curriculum, their interactions, even their academic grading system.

More than 70 Pagosans got the chance to hear about these guiding principles, and learn more about the PAC program which they have helped invest in at the open house and dinner that Borges, Bellina and their students hosted recently. Attendees were treated to a video montage about the PAC, created by the Pagosa Springs High School videography class, and a slideshow that the students themselves put together of images and philosophies from their time together so far. The PAC students took turns making presentations about their four guiding principles and other information to help the audience understand just what this unique class has been doing together this fall.

“This was an emotional experience,” said Ralph Hamilton that night about the presentation and dinner. Hamilton is a board member of the Hughes Foundation, a local philanthropic organization that helps fund educational initiatives in Pagosa, including a $250,000 donation to help the PAC get its start. “I am so impressed with this program. I’ve spent time with several of the kids tonight and their enthusiasm, directness and commitment to this program is wonderful … This place has good vibes.” Hamilton added that the founder and benefactor of the Hughes Foundation, Dusty Hughes, would be thrilled with this program that benefited from a grant from her foundation. “Mrs. Hughes had great things in mind, and the PAC meets those. This is a very significant program for the future of education in our community,” Hamilton concluded.

Another Hamilton — no relation to Ralph — had more good things to say about the PAC’s progress so far. David Hamilton is the principal at Pagosa Springs High School. “Kids need to feel like they have somewhere they belong, and they need to be held accountable for earning their diploma,” he said.. Like so many of the open house attendees, Hamilton is glad to see that kids in our area have options for success.

“Kids need to be engaged in choosing where they go, and how they get there,” school board member Joanne Irons said at the open house. “We need to be teaching kids one mind at a time, one way at a time; we don’t want cookie cutter education,” she said. “Rigor, relevance and relationships are the new three Rs that people are talking about in education today; it’s not just reading, writing and ’rithmetic anymore,” Irons added.

The PAC, it seems, supports these new fundamentals, teaching kids in a way that challenges them, is relevant to them and emphasizes relationships in all senses of the word.

“Our teachers help us push ourselves, and make our goals,” said Madsen , a PAC student in the senior class. “Just two weeks after school started, we went on a really hard hike and had to push ourselves really hard. I like the PAC program because our teachers talk to us about the real world,” Madsen said.

“To get them in a place where they have to concede that things are difficult,” Bellina said, “they have to push harder than ever before, and let go of their bravado and coolness, that all makes such a big difference,”

The hike that Madsen spoke of was a three-day backpack adventure in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The class also recently did three-day river trip on the lower San Juan River.

As a journalist for The SUN, and as a youth violence prevention educator, I was lucky enough to go along on the rafting trip with the PAC and row one of the gear boats for the journey. Out beyond all the distractions of the front-country life with these students, I was able to gain a unique understanding of the dynamics that keep this program in orbit, and allow it to grow and change with the student’s needs.

The video presentation about the PAC that guests watched during the open house, in fact, was themed around the metaphor of a river. On the river, as in life, you must always be on the lookout, watching up ahead of you for large obstacles, finding the right path, moving with the flow of life, and not getting caught up in something dangerous, the video narrator told us. Indeed, the river is a symbol that PAC students really respond to. In my work with the students during the trip, centering on personal values and beliefs and healthy relationships, the image of a river made for an easy discussion piece on which to float our ideas.

If relationships are one of the new “R” fundamentals of education, then the PAC is on the right track. Not only are the students learning about personal relationships (what’s healthy and what’s not) and relationships between things in the world (like the ecological relationships between the natural things they find in the wilderness), they are also learning to rebuild the kinds of school relationships they need to succeed.

“The PAC program takes kids who have drifted away from relationships in education,” said Archuleta School District Superintendent Mark DeVoti. “And then what they get from those relationships is instant self-belief, and that self-belief just propels them through whatever situations they may encounter in life.”

Parents of students in the PAC seem to agree. “I can talk to him again,” said Monica Bentley of her relationship with her son, Jeff Bentley, since he started with the PAC program this fall. “His group of friends has changed, his grades have gone up,” she said.

Jeff Bentley agreed: “Yeah, I got in with the wrong people last year,” he said. “I was in the process of flunking out.” Now that he has put an emphasis on educational relationships, and made a commitment to the PAC program, however, he is getting mostly A’s and B’s, he said.

“He’s showing so much more interest in school now, said Monica Bentley. “He wants to get up and go every morning. And he wants to talk with me about school when he comes home. Last year it was an ‘I don’t care’ attitude; this year, he’s looking forward to the future.”

And the future looks bright for these students, according to friends and sponsors of the PAC that night. Graduation requirements are changing, college requirements are changing, job requirements are changing, Joanne Irons. The world is changing. We don’t even know what the jobs of the future will look like, exactly. Kids need to learn flexible, fluid thinking. The PAC can give them that.

For healing the past, making the most of the present and looking forward to the future, the PAC seems to be on the right track, in this humble reporter’s opinion. As the PAC motto goes, these kids are, A group of individuals who found their path together.