The move to high school can be daunting – more students, more freedom, more choices and more responsibilities.
So the Women’s Resource Center, Durango School District 9-R, the Mankind Project and the Sexual Assault Services Organization partnered to help eighth-graders make the transition through the Keys to Success conference.
Thursday’s event filled the Fort Lewis College campus with 500 boys and girls from Escalante, Miller, Bayfield and Ignacio middle schools.
“Starting high school is definitely a rite of passage,” said Maura Doherty Demko, executive director of SASO. “And at this event, kids get to know there are all these people in the community who care about them.”
Kids are kept busy with keynote speakers, three workshops, lunch and a chance to ask high school students anything about what to expect in the fall.
“I thought it would just be say no to all these things,” said Amber Stephenson from Bayfield Middle School. “But instead, it’s been ideas on how to cope. It teaches you how to get out of situations.”
The themes for workshops – advocacy, healthy relationships and positive self-image – are based on Colorado’s health and wellness standards.
“Both 9-R middle schools adopted the conference as part of the health grade,” said Julie Popp, who organizes the boys’ conference on behalf of the Durango Education Partnership, which includes more than 50 community organizations. “And character is 10 percent of every grade in high school, although it displays differently in P.E. (physical education) than art or calculus.”
The event has built a reputation, Popp said. The Colorado Department of Education is watching it closely, and this year, representatives from schools and nonprofits from Pagosa Springs; Albuquerque; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and as far away as Detroit attended to observe.
It grew out of a girls’ program, Girls to Women, Women to Girls, started 16 years ago by the resource center. District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger wanted to support the effort but thought boys needed a day, too. That led to a new name and a higher degree of collaboration.
Healthy relationshipsSASO brings its entire staff to teach two workshops. For boys, it’s Going Out or Hanging Out?, a look at building healthy relationships with girlfriends, friends and parents. For girls, it’s Crossing the Line?, about healthy communications.
“It’s all about social media, sexting and all the pressure in high school,” Demko said. “Girls learn how to be positively assertive with boyfriends, friends, coaches and teachers.”
The event not only runs 24 workshops (12 for girls, 12 for boys) three times each, organizers try to make each team a mix of students from different schools and separate close friends into different groups so teams can meld, said Liz Mora, executive director of the resource center. While the boys’ and girls’ days are not mirror images, they include similar elements.
Virtually all facilitators are volunteers, and workshops usually require additional volunteers to manage groups.
“Ours tends to be well-received, because with swords and eighth-grade boys, you can’t go wrong,” said Jennifer Thurston, who is in her third year providing Using a Bout to Reduce Doubt, a fencing exercise. “But my volunteers are so important to keep students on point.”
Angela Grogan, one of her volunteers, who is an FLC student and competitive fencer on the epée, found that to be the challenge.
“It’s not just wailing on each other,” she said. “It’s not just fencing, but fencing to learn how you’re going to succeed in life.”
Keep ‘em movingAction is the centerpiece of many workshops. Boys learned aikido for centering oneself and anger management, drumming to understand how to advocate for themselves and others and a low “rope” course using mental, physical and emotional skills to solve people puzzles. For the girls, it was boxing with keynote speaker Jill Morley, writer and director of “Fight Like a Girl,” Kenpo for self-defense and confidence, and the popular Gutsy Girl, learning to use assertive communication.
Eighth-graders asked numerous questions, from basics like finding one’s way around sprawling Durango High School and how lockers and lunch work to concerns about harassment and drugs.
“I encourage all of you to get involved in a club or a sport,” DHS junior Naomi Huffman-Wood said. “It will help you find your place, it will help you figure out who you are, and it will help you meet new people.”
Corbin Randle, a freshman at DHS, answered questions on such things as bathroom breaks and “Is high school fun?”
“Don’t go to Rank (Park) because that’s where stoners hang out,” he told them. “And if you get your work done, it’s easy peasy. Just do it, don’t put it off until the last minute.”