A Summer Outdoors program offered by the Future School of Fort Smith serves two purposes — to give students from across the area the opportunity to have an epic summertime outdoor experience while applying to the school.
The Future School of Fort Smith is a Fort Smith public charter school established in 2016. The school has 300 students in the ninth through twelfth grades.
An outdoor education program at the school has two classes for students – an entry-level class that focuses on teaching students stewardship of public lands, the necessary skills for backpacking, rock climbing, camping, and kayaking, and a sophomore class, in students participate in their new skills and learn how to teach others. Due to staff and equipment, 12 places are available for the two summer trips. The staff ratio is one employee for four students.
In the summer, instructor Brett Roberts expands the program to allow every 9th through 12th grader in the area to backpack or kayak for five days. This summer, students averaged 10 miles daily down the Buffalo River to earn their 50-mile challenge patch in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo National River. If you complete 50 self-propelled miles in the Buffalo National River, you’ll get a 50-mile challenge patch, Roberts said.
Due to the extreme heat, this summer’s 5-day backpacking trip, which is usually the second trip of the summer, was a little different, with students camping at Shores Lake, hiking to the waterfall, kayaking, fencing and climbing on the lake, and fly fishing.
“With a week of 115 degrees weather we had to rethink things to protect the children and make sure they have access to water.”
The programs are open to all students, not just Future School students, Roberts said.
“This is one of our recruitment programs. But it also serves to teach the students and give them an outdoor experience. It’s a summer learning program,” she said.
INCREASE ACCESS OUTDOORS
Roberts’ primary focus in her outdoor programs is equity, making things accessible to all students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Everything we do is free and there are children who most likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to go outside for a variety of reasons – socio-economic, lack of skills or ability, a chance to take on these adventurous outdoor tours. It allows them to experience these types of things in a low-risk environment,” Roberts said. “A lot of kids never left Fort Smith, or maybe even their neighborhood or part of town. It shows them what Arkansas has to offer in terms of outdoor recreation and what options there are, what things to do outside.”
The program provides everything students need for the trip, including equipment, tuition and meals.
“The only thing children need to bring is clothes. I am working on this to get us clothes and good shoes for our children. That’s one of our biggest needs right now, to get children appropriate clothing and shoes so their school shoes don’t get ruined,” Roberts said.
Roberts also wants greater representation among Black and Hispanic students.
“I think it’s important to represent those who like them,” Roberts said. “So often there is this cliche, who can do it, who will do it. But we want it to be more representative and diverse.”
In addition to teaching outdoor skills, the program includes social emotional growth. Students identify goals to work on with their group and personally. Personal goals include community culture growth, personal growth, connection with nature, and open-ended goals, Roberts said.
Students take part in a socio-emotional survey at the beginning and end of the trip. They assess themselves on a range of topics and meet with co-workers who also assess them.
“And we compare and talk,” Roberts said. “At the end of the trip we’ll do it again. I’m actually looking for numbers to drop. They are more thoughtful, more introspective. They actually think about these things and their perspective changes.”
Students then create an action plan that they can apply in their daily lives.
“The action plans are designed to learn from the field, where it’s relatively easy because there are no distractions. There are no cell phones, no Snapchat or Instagram. They don’t have a TV to watch or YouTube or whatever they do. The majority of our children have pretty chaotic lives. They don’t always have a very structured parental unit, a guardian unit, so it puts them in an environment that has a pretty rigid structure but allows them to grow,” Roberts said. “It forces them away from ambivalence. You see, ‘If I don’t change, my life will go on like this.’”
Crystal Echols, an English teacher at the Future School, sent her 15-year-old daughter Onesty Thomas on one of the outings this summer.
“She wanted to do the kayak tour, but I wasn’t sure. I was a little nervous because she was on the water the whole trip. But I want her to be able to travel, so I agreed to backpacking. I grew up with Girl Scouts. I grew up outdoors. I want my children to experience that too.”
Echols said the two have had many conversations about it since then.
“I think she’s been communicating more since she came back,” Echols said. “I’ll say I think she’s thinking about things a little bit more (since she got back from the trip) than just acting or reacting. I think she’s learned to process her thoughts.”
The experience was very different from the sporting activities and sports-related trips her children have taken in the past, and she looks forward to her other two children participating in similar trips in the future. She has also given her permission for Thomas to join the kayak trip next summer.
Thomas said with no family plans to leave town this summer and with much disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, she is keen to take part in the adventures of the outdoor program this summer.
“At first I was a bit scared. That first night I worried that there might be a bear in front of our tent. But after the first night everything was ok. I had a lot of fun,” she said.
Of the lessons learned over the five days, Thomas said the most important was not to judge people.
“We talked a lot about it. Everyone there was just really nice. It was a great experience,” she said.
Thomas plans to be on at least one of the adventures next summer and said the school’s summer outdoor program is very important to the community as a whole.
“There are so many children who don’t go outside. I think it’s something they have to try,” she said.