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A wealth of wilderness for English language learners

Andrew Pridgen
Emma Garrard / Tribune News Service / Adventure, Risk and Challenge literacy program director Katie Fesus helps Tania Cabrera, 14, with an English writing assignment for the ARC program.
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One month ago eight high school students from Incline, Truckee and Petaluma kicked-off a six-week stay in the wild with a campout to Desolation Wilderness.

The name of their first destination couldn’t have been more appropriate as the students – many of whom sported hiking boots and backpacks for the first time – were also experiencing other significant firsts: first time away from home, family, friends, TV, video games, and, oh yeah – their native tongue.

The Adventure, Risk and Challenge leadership and literacy program brought together the eight English Language Learners not just for a challenging look at nature but for an intense academic program interspersed with daily lessons in leadership.

“It’s a daunting task to throw them right into it like that,” said program founder and organizer Katie Fesus, a teacher at Sierra Nevada College. “When they get to (the main) camp after that first eight-day backpacking trip they’re in a different state of mind. It’s pretty overwhelming.”

But to think that participants came to this year’s program as “a pretty shy, subdued group is almost too hard to imagine now,” Fesus said.

This year for the first time students from Incline High School are participating. Karen Duran, 14, Jennifer Martinez, 15, both said they were surprised at the number of friends they made.

“The best part was getting to meet great people,” Martinez said.

Enjoying an afternoon break between science class and dinner preparation, the eight students noshed on goldfish crackers and reflected on their summer experience – but not too seriously.

“I’m sooo much older now,” said Israel Carrillo, 14, of Petaluma while being pelted with the tiny orange crackers. “But not as old as her.”

Carrillo pointed to his science instructor Beth Gross, 29, of Bellingham, Wash.

“What do you think I am, ancient?” Gross retorted to an instant chorus of “yes” from the students.

“And to think at one point I was worried about them getting along,” Gross said.

The program – in its second year at UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station just north of Truckee – gives students the chance to participate in a sun-up to sun-down regimen featuring morning runs, small break-out classes throughout the day, cooking, cleaning, nightly meetings and course work that will culminate in final group and individual writing and science projects.

A book with essays and poems by each student will be published. Bilingual signs for a new “interpretive trail” around Sagehen will also be completed and posted.

“Part of this program is to get the students ready for the California State High School Exit Exam,” said Fesus, noting that the state of Nevada, while it does not have an exit exam, features similar testing. “The skills they’re tested on in literacy and critical thinking will help them onto the next level.”

Last year four out of the five students eligible to take the California exam passed. In addition the program gives its participants the equivalent of a full-year class credit.

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