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Pagosa students ‘Walking to Washington D.C.’

Six special young men from Pagosa Springs High School set out in September 2008 to “Walk to Washington D.C.”

Washington D.C., by the route they have taken, is 2,633 miles from here.

Jesse Aragon, Christopher Brown, Zack Irons, Bryan Montoya, Jason Reece and Benjamin Wynens are the six students in the Special Talents class at the high school. They embarked on this journey in the fall of 2008 with full support of staff members in the program — Mary Kurt-Mason, Bryan Hinds, Lisa Foeman and Lisa Johnson.

They accomplished their goal in a very unusual way. Each day after lunch, through sun, rain, wind, sleet and Pagosa winter weather, they have walked laps around the school’s track or on the bus loop. Not only has this been excellent exercise for all, it has been the basis of an impressive study program.

Through this “walk” they have strengthened their knowledge of math, technology, geography, American history and writing skills. These afternoon walks also help get rid of the sluggishness that settles in on so many people right after lunch. When they return to the classroom they are all revived, refreshed and ready to resume their schoolwork.

How has this program worked? It has been a very well orchestrated process. To begin with, the students located Pagosa Springs on a map of the United States, then located Washington D.C. They briefly discussed our nation’s capital and all the government functions that are carried out there. The proposal by Kurt-Mason to “visit” Washington D.C. was met with much enthusiasm, and they began to plan their trip. The states they selected to walk through to reach Washington are Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

How far must they walk and how would they accomplish this? How would they keep track of their distance? How long would it take? What would they see along the way? These and other questions awaited answers.

Let’s look first at physical fitness and the math components of the program. A chart was developed that contained each student’s and staff member’s name, the five school days of the week, and a “total” column for each person. They have all (staff and students) navigated the track or bus loop almost every day since the program began. They walk, use a special tricycle, a power chair, a wheelchair, and have often traveled by snowshoe or sled. Each person keeps track of the number of laps traveled each day. When they return to the classroom they record their number on the weekly chart.

At the end of the week the laps are totaled. The quarter-mile laps on the track or the .7-mile laps around the bus loop are converted into miles. This is done with the strip manipulative aids and a calculator. Then one of the students enters this information on a database in the classroom computer. The weather of the current location the group has arrived at is checked on “Google Earth.” They also make good use of Google maps. They figure out how far they have traveled based on the chart totals, and record the last place they reached. They record cities they reach — approximately every 100 miles — on the map, and determine where they will be heading next.

As they travel, each person is introduced to sights, special features and historic facts about each state. Jason, Zack, Jesse and Christopher showed me the extensive and impressive notebooks they have kept. There is a section in their notebooks for each state they have traveled through. Information they have added includes a history sheet of the place, a United States map on which they have colored in the state, and a page each about the state flag, flower and bird. There is a journal page in each state section on which each person writes down what he has learned about that state before he treks on to the next one. They have all enjoyed watching films about a state as they travel through it.

There is a large bulletin board in the classroom that represents the group’s progress. This is filled with a map and tourist information that has been gathered from each state. Hanging around the room are several quilted maps of states the group has visited. Kurt-Mason, an avid and talented quilter, has a collection of the 50 state map quilts.

There is an even larger map in the hall outside the classroom. The boys pointed this one out to me, and explained that by looking at this map, the entire school population can keep track of their daily progress. This has helped bring awareness of the project to others, and on many days other students or staff members can be seen walking with this group in support of what they are doing. (Their laps are not counted in the group totals, but everyone enjoys having guest walkers along.)

On Nov. 9, 2009, as they were well into their journey, the boys wrote a collective letter to President Obama. In the letter, they told him, “We are walking from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, to Washington D.C. So far we have walked over 2,000 miles through seven states. We started walking and snowshoeing in September 2008. We think that we will arrive in Washington D.C. in early 2010. Our class is the Special Talents class at Pagosa Springs High School. We have 6 students and 4 teachers, and we walk every day. While we walk through the states we learn facts about the states. Did you know that the state reptile of Oklahoma is the mountain boomer lizard? Walking is good exercise. It builds up muscles and makes you healthy. Would you like to walk with us across the United States of America?”

Jason Reece told me, “Walking across America is good for the body.”

His favorite state so far has been Texas. He has relatives there, as well as relatives in North Carolina. He also reminded me that, “We don’t walk when there is lightning because that is a dangerous situation.”

He showed me the progress he has made in his notebook and explained how the notebook is organized.

Jesse Aragon was working at the computer the day I visited the classroom, and he told me, “We add the laps you walk every day. At the end of the week, we add all the numbers together.”

He has enjoyed the entire experience, and especially likes walking every day with Zack, Jason, Bryan, Christopher, Benjamin and the teachers. Jesse also pointed out the pages he has colored in his notebook.

Christopher Brown explained to me how they walk every day after lunch. He has liked walking through and learning about all the states. He enjoys learning about the animals especially, and would love to walk to a city that has a Cabela’s store. He told me all about the letter the class wrote to President Obama. He said he watches the news all the time about the president and our country. He told me a bit about himself in our time together, as well. He likes sports, and really likes to work on trucks.

Zack Irons especially enjoyed the time they spent in Tennessee and North Carolina. He was impressed with the “clogging” dancing in Tennessee and really liked visiting the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He told me that, “We will walk from Washington D.C., the capital, across the north of the U.S. to Washington State.”

He said they might just keep on going to all the states before he graduates — 50 states in all. “That’s a lot of walking!” he exclaimed.

He explained his notebook to me as well, and showed me the progress they had made when we looked at the map in the hallway.

The group is currently studying about our nation’s government while they are “in” Washington D. C. They will visit historical sites, monuments, and buildings before moving on.

Where to next? They will be charting a course across the northern United States as they continue their journey to Bellingham, Wash. From there they will book passage on an Inland Passage ferry and head for Alaska. From Alaska they plan to fly to Hawaii, and then to California. From California they will travel through western and southwestern states, learning a lot about the Four Corners region, before finally returning to Pagosa Springs.

These guys are a true inspiration to many of the other students at the high school. In January, students in Mrs. Cammack’s class wrote essays about their heroes. A common thread in the essays I read was the admiration of the hard work, enthusiasm, and perseverance of all these boys.

In her essay about her hero, Brian Montoya, Megan Loran said, “No matter what day it is that boy has a great sense of humor. A lot of people think people with disabilities don’t have a lot of intelligence; but this kid right here has a lot of intelligence. Bryan is my number one hero, because the way he is biking across America is amazing to me, and probably a lot of other people. Brian always brings joy to everyone and if he doesn’t bring joy to you … well you are just nuts. Keep up the good work Brian, because everyone in Mrs. Kurt-Mason’s class is special and don’t forget it.”

I think this says it all, don’t you?