Rainier, 'ritin', and 'rithmetic

A unique student jobs-training program incorporates knowledge and nature.

IF I WERE A SCHOOLTEACHER, you couldn't drag my butt into unpaid summer work without a small-scale war. I would work like a woefully underpaid dog for nine months of the year but folks, when I turn the little varmints back over to you in June, that's it—I'm hitting the road and I'm not coming back till that bell rings in September.

You're glad I'm not a teacher. (I'm glad I'm not a teacher too.) And I am gladder still, as you should be, that there exist teachers willing to go the extra mile, even if that mile involves altitude.

On a rainy Rainier morning in late summer, just before the back-to-school sales have really kicked into gear, some teachers are at Bucks Creek Camp to learn Web design. Experienced Web folk, told that there's one phone line at their disposal and nothing with higher bandwidth, will recognize this as a form of extreme outward-boundness, but the point of the weeklong retreat is not to rough it digitally but to enjoy the camp, enjoy the rain, learn a major Web-production software package in four days, build a large Web site, and then head to school and teach groups of at-risk kids to do the same.

And I mentioned the rain?

Roughing it. Yeah, that phone line is the least of their problems.

LOU AUGUST HAD AN IDEA: Here you have at-risk students, here you have companies needing to offload surplus equipment, and here you have the perennially underfunded National Parks Service in its various forms. Why not get them together, asked the executive director of what was about to become the Wilderness Technology Alliance? Why not get the kids involved in a project that teaches them techish skills and gets them into the woods; why not give the companies a chance to donate their computers to folks who might be able to learn from them (or even refurbish them, for the mechanically minded); why not hook those parks up with really good Web sites and maybe get kids in there who might not otherwise get a chance to enjoy them?

Considering the logistics of bringing two government-run operations and the private sector under one roof, it's a miracle this program exists at all. On Rainier, the miracle is made manifest by cramming assorted teachers, August, a handful of Parks Service folk, and two reps from Macromedia into a space the size of a large conference room without mayhem ensuing.

No mayhem, but we do have Sasquatch. The teachers are showing off their Web site—camping tips and safety info, with some spiffy Shock effects and a lot of photos of what was clearly good hiking that week—and appear to have inserted occasional images of the fabled Pacific Northwest stink-ape to amuse themselves. There's a lot of giggling. It's like the end of summer camp.

Sara McReynolds has come a long way—she teaches in Kennewick's ESL program, working with at-risk kids who speak languages I haven't even heard of—to be thus amused. She's the kind of teacher who seeks out foundation grants for her kids' programs, works with international sister schools to build programs, travels around the country to work on programs to improve assessment mechanisms (that's testing, y'all), the kind of person who you hope is working with your kids but you know is doing the most good in the world with her at-risk crew.

After this camp she will head back to the new school year, choose several 8th- to 11th-grade students (smart but classroom-challenged, physically fit, financially disadvantaged) to teach what she's learned here, and work with them through the year to give them both the skills and the motivation to contribute to a multischool Web site. Next summer, those kids are coming back to camp with her, where they'll get a week of more training—teaching them to go back to class and teach the next group.

THAT APPROACH—train the teachers, let the teachers teach the next group a project-based skill set, teach the next group to teach and so down the line—is called the rotational model of pedagogy, because like an axis of rotation it requires three points. (Imagine a triangle.) August puts it like this: Schools have to compete in the high-tech world. That takes money and teachers. If you add students into the mix, you can teach them tech by having them do tech (Web sites or refurbishing; the WildTech program also includes an A+ certification program), making Web sites for worthy community groups or perhaps local businesses at a low cost. The students get expertise, the community entities get Web sites, the school gets money to plow back into training, the students (eventually supplanting the teachers on the tech front, under the theory that kids really do learn this stuff faster than adults) get more and broader expertise . . . you get the picture.

So where do the parks fit in, and why are we wandering around Rainier in the rain? Among the stated goals of the program are teaching students about wilderness preservation and environmental issues as well as getting them out into the wilderness, something less likely to happen for kids from underprivileged or single-parent backgrounds and an important conduit to what August calls wilderness values. "The wilderness teaches us about our humanity," he says, noting that his dream would be to have every high school student go through a program similar to this: "One can't always say which students [are] at risk; every student needs the opportunity to bond with our aboriginal teacher." As for the parks—checked any parks Web sites lately? Attention must be paid; with students, you can pay a bit less and get a lively result.

THE TEACHERS ARE filing off the mountain. It has been a hard week; a few tell me they hit the wall Wednesday night or Thursday morning, but they're all blissed-out and happy with what they've achieved by Friday afternoon. (Never underestimate the power of the group hug in your high-tech wilderness geek session, it seems.) The strain of design misfires and the pain of learning Dreamweaver all but instantly have a purpose: It reminds the teachers that learning is hard, and that the kids they're bringing into this two-year commitment have a lot of hard work ahead, learning everything from how to talk with businessfolk to why you can't just grab words and pictures from other people's Web sites to make your own.

Pilot versions of the program, one of which was inducted into the Smithsonian back in April, indicate that virtually every student who undertakes the WildTech program will graduate; an overwhelming majority will go on to college or directly into high-tech jobs. And there's more on the horizon: more Web sites, more schools, and perhaps even more rotational-model training programs for other at-risk groups. August has been talking to folks in the Job Corps back in Kentucky, looking to upgrade their programs from training in (for instance) bricklaying to higher-tech concerns, and agencies in other states have expressed interest in the Washington-based programs. Sasquatch may want to prepare for company.

 
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