Monday, August 15, 2011

The Transition Program

By Stefan Hard

Published 8/15/2011

Times Argus

They call it the The Transition Program.

Designed for at-risk kids about to make the move from Barre City and Barre Town middle schools into bustling Spaulding High School later this summer, the program is much more lively and innovative than its name would imply.

Located high and remote in the hills of Brookfield at Midnight Mountain, the home and horse farm of married couple Georgie Stapleton and Brian Locke, it seems like an unlikely setting to help kids make a successful transition from one brick-and-mortar school building to another.

There’s a horse corral, dense woods, a pond and a rustic barn next to a white clapboard house. With an atmosphere more like a summer camp than a “program” — no academics taught here — the six-day second half of the Transition Program this month, building on a three-day session in May, takes a closer look to understand what’s going on.

The Transition Program might consider changing its name to Self-Awareness Camp to promote the number one skill taught here.

“One of the first things we teach is to feel your feet on the ground. What am I feeling right now? Stay present as yourself even as you have to feel the emotions of others,” said Stapleton.

Stapleton, in her day job, works for Washington County Youth Services Bureau. She gets help from Locke, who is a manufacturing engineer and performance artist (his license plate is “CLOWN”) and Tom Murphy of Waterbury Center, who co-founded the program three years ago with Stapleton.

Many of the roughly two dozen kids involved in Transition Program this year have faced more unpleasant changes and uphill battles in their childhoods than many outside of the program face in an entire lifetime. Most of the kids have had little chance to relax with their peers or to put aside how other students in school react to the obstacles they face. Learning disabilities, speech impediments, physical and sexual abuse trauma histories and multiple foster care placements are just a few of the challenges faced by kids in the program.

By design, The Transition Program little resembles a classroom with its horse-handling ring, ropes course, and improvisational comedy and body movement workshops. There are also campfires and storytelling before lights-out.

Another dimension is the inclusion of a few Spaulding teachers as camp counselors, allowing some of the students to start forming relationships with their soon-to-be teachers: A real lifesaver once they’re thrown into the big pool of high school.
Ryan Malone, 15, of Barre Town went through the program last year and is back for a second stint, but this time he is a student leader in the program. Malone boldly went before the school board and lobbied for the program’s funding to be sustained, telling school directors that he gained the confidence to handle a half-ton horse in the program and as a result, could handle the taunts of a bully in school.

“I also learned communication skills and I learned concentration skills,” said Malone recently as he watched another student take that horse around the ring at Midnight Mountain. “I’m getting better. I know I am because people are telling me that I am.”

Rebecca Benoir, 14, of Graniteville, stepped out of the corral where she’d been working with a palomino quarter horse named Shelby, first with Stapleton in the ring with her, and then by herself. Benoir joined Malone and a half-dozen other students watching outside the ring.

“I was a little nervous at first, it’s so big, like 1,000 pounds, but after I saw she was relaxed, she’s calm, I knew that I should be calm, too,” said Benoir. Benoir admitted the horse has a little bit of attitude, but that she had to stay steady and firm in her commands to get results.

Over at the ropes course, the kids took a break from spotting each other on low ropes suspended above the forest floor from a circle of large trees. They played a strategy game where you can’t see your own three playing cards, but you can see everyone else’s, and you have to try to line yourself up sequentially with others by the numbers on the face of the cards. The group, mostly students but with two counselors, lined themselves up perfectly after a few minutes of sideways glances and rearrangement.

Tyler Therrien, 15, of Barre, in the end, put himself first in the line-up and explained afterward that he watched how others were lining up, and their reaction to his movements, to figure out his place. These and other games teach students to be aware of subtle (and not so subtle) signals from others in a social environment, and respond appropriately.

At the other side of the horse pasture, in the house, Murphy was playing “freeze” with a group of kids and two Spaulding teachers, P.J. LaPerle and Nick Connor. In alternating fashion, adults and students would go up in front of the others with an object in hand and improvise act until someone in the group yelled “Freeze!” and the actor would have to change his routine.

After much urging and suggestion, then outright prodding and finally lead acting from Murphy, Casey DuBois, 15, of Barre Town slipped into acting in reaction to Murphy’s movements and had everyone laughing and surprised.

“I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of everybody,” said DuBois afterwards. “I didn’t want to be as shy … their reactions made me nervous.”

“I learned that I’m capable of a lot of things,” chimed in Nick Dune, 14, of Barre Town.

Murphy explained to the kids that sometimes they have to push themselves past what is comfortable and familiar to find something inside that they perhaps didn’t know they had.

At the end of the afternoon, with some of the kids swimming in the pond, and some lying on the grass chatting with some of their soon-to-be high school teachers, it was clear that, despite the day’s difficulties and challenges, the kids were left relaxed and maybe even a bit pleased with themselves. Perhaps, the skills they gain in The Transition Program might be useful out of more than just that difficult leap into high school.a