JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
At 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, students swarmed the perimeter of the islands in the drop-off area of Durango High School, wielding so many brooms that from a distance, they looked like a youth chain gang sponsored by Martha Stewart.
In fact, they were the 125 ninth-grade students of Basecamp, DHS’s largest Small Learning Community, engaged in their weekly period of “crew.”
Stewart would have approved.
Shane Voss, a teacher-leader within Basecamp, was overseeing things.
“Brooms, guys,” he called to two idling boys, who promptly joined their peers in spreading barrels and barrels of fresh, dull-gold mulch throughout the school’s front grounds.
Voss said that Basecamp is about the “valorization of effort, community, service and personality.”
“It was dirty before today. And now it looks beautiful. It’s just flabbergasting,” he said.
DHS’s groundskeeper Steve Kerchee called it incredible.
“I know these grounds, and they should have taken before and after shots,” he said.
Spreading the mulch marked the end of Phase 1 of Basecamp’s Junction Creek cleanup project, which began when school started.
Junction Creek runs adjacent to school grounds, and, until recently, students used its overgrown banks to surreptitiously smoke various substances and lewdly cavort.
“That spot has probably seen just about everything,” said DHS assistant principal Mike Freeburn, the administrator of Basecamp, “and it was just covered in trash.”
When they started, debris was piled 6 to 8 feet high.
“The creek had been neglected many decades,” he said. “Now, we’ve removed all the overgrowth, it’s pristine like a park. Before, you couldn’t even see that bench,” said Freeburn, pointing to an abrasively lime green bench only a few feet ahead.
Crew, not passengers
DHS has two other small learning communities, which were implemented this year for ninth and 10th grades to provide an individualized education in a large-school setting. The Da Vinci community emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math, with a special emphasis on art.
The Atlas community draws from the prestigious International Baccalaureate curriculum, which promotes active inquiry and intercultural understanding.
Meanwhile, in Basecamp’s wing of the school, a sign reads, “students and teacher are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.”
Judged pragmatically, making Basecamp students clean Junction Creek, beautify school grounds and abolish their own hideout are worthy endeavors. What it has to do with students mastering algorithms or Shakespeare is less clear.
But Freeburn said crew was a central tenet of Basecamp’s educational philosophy.
Basecamp is a pedagogic continuation of Expeditionary Learning, which is currently in place at Escalante middle school.
Modeled on the theories of the German educator Kurt Hahn, who founded Outward Bound, Expeditionary Learning schools place unique emphasis on community, project-based learning and physical activity (which perhaps partially accounts for why Basecamp’s 240 students have a male-female ratio of about 2:1).
Basecamp intellectually reinforces those values (and promotes literacy, Freeburn was quick to point out) by making students read books like A River Runs Through It and Pay it Forward.
Freeburn said, “In all three SLCs, academics are paramount. But Basecamp embraces the concept wholeheartedly that community involvement creates an opportunity for students to learn at a deeper level than they would in a regular classroom – that’s a basic crew concept.”
This is the “spillover” thesis of learning, one that Expeditionary Learning has pioneered across the country: By engaging students in their community, they become engaged in their school work.
Banking on it
Back at the river bank, Freeburn was animated.
“We’re going to try and build an outdoor classroom over there, in that clearing, constructed with natural materials like rock. See? It’s a natural amphitheater. It would be great for a writing project, or a social studies class about water’s role in the politics of the West.”
That sounded like a lot of work, and teenagers aren’t famous for their enthusiasm for hard labor.
Freeburn batted away such concerns.
“Clearing all this, there were blisters, sweat, and no complaints. Students have by and large really loved it, and it makes them start thinking about the betterment of the community. In the future they’ll come back in their 20s, and say, ‘I built that.’ Pride is very important, and students gain an appreciation for what they have in Durango,” he said.