by Barbie Levasseur, Executive Vice President, South San Francisco Education Foundation
As Baden Continuation High School students walked on the field to participate in the ropes course at San Bruno Mountain Park, most of them seemed cautious, but excited. For many of them this was their first field trip since elementary school. Not all of them had their curiosity piqued though. I noticed two students standing off to the side nonchalantly. When I introduced myself to Leo*, he jokingly gave me a fake name as his friend, Ella*, was getting a replacement name tag. “Did you lose the first one?” asked Jo, one of the Thornton Wilderness School Students who runs the ropes course. “No,” replied Ella, “I just… threw it…” Unfazed, Jo wrote Ella’s name on a new nametag and passed it to her with a smile. She’d probably seen this scene enough times before to foresee the transformation about to occur.
The ropes course is truly student-led with Thornton Wilderness School students building, maintaining, teaching, securing harnesses, balaying, and coaching. They serve middle schoolers, police officers, and everyone in between. The students are the program’s biggest advocates sharing how it has improved their public speaking skills, job opportunities, work ethic, sense of community, and other life skills. They credit their instructor, Ed Lopez, calling him more of a mentor than a teacher. “Like Mr. Miyagi.” As the students started doing the Boot Dance, a silly ice-breaker, Mr. Lopez sidebarred with me: “Watch what happens here. Many of the students start out disaffected. We take baby steps to get them laughing and to get them interacting. One step at a time.”
By the time the students got to doing Four Person Push-Ups the air was filled with laughter. I glanced over at Leo and Ella, who were still standing by with their hands in their pockets, but smirking. Maybe. As the activities progressed into increasingly elaborate trust falls and group collaboration activities, Mr. Lopez had students link arms with their best friend, and line up, then sent besties to opposite sides of the field, separating Leo and Ella. Ella started joining in on the group activities, but I kept spotting Leo gravitating to the picnic table where teachers were starting to prepare a BBQ, and thought, You may not be able to win this one over, Mr. Lopez.
One of the last activities before lunch was Trolley Races. Each trolley consisted of two long 4×4 wooden boards with ten sets of ropes attached. “The goal is to get the trolley to those cones up the path,” instructed one of the student leaders. “The rule is that only the trolley is allowed to touch the ground.” Baden students separated into teams of ten, placed one foot on each 4×4 and grabbed the ropes to be able to collectively hoist up the wooden boards with each step. They had a lot of false starts, but finally one of the teams started making progress. The other team was struggling to find a rhythm until out-of-nowhere Leo took the lead spot and started counting out left and right steps in a booming voice. Shocked, I said to Mr. Lopez, “That’s the guy who kept walking away from the other activities.” “There’s a place for everyone,” he smiled, knowingly, “We just have to find it.”
In its own way the Ropes Course is a place for everyone. Mr. Lopez explained that back when the Wilderness School first moved its ropes course to San Bruno Mountain Park in 1999 there was a lot of gang violence between South San Francisco and Daly City, and the ropes course was a neutral zone where everyone could come together and do stuff. Due to the pandemic and a lack of available funding, Baden hasn’t been able to do field trips like this in many years. When I ran into Seemaa Prasad, Baden’s principal, she expressed gratitude toward the South San Francisco Education Foundation, which received a grant from the San Mateo County Parks Foundation to fund this field trip. “This is an opportunity that we couldn’t have provided if we didn’t receive the grant,” she said. “It’s great to see students participating, learning something new, and having fun while learning in an outdoor environment.”
Mr. Lopez announced “everyone’s favorite activity:” lunch. He believes that breaking bread together is powerful for team-building. And, the students were about to need it, because after they ate their BBQ meal, it was time to go jump off trees.
Many older generations stereotype Gen Z as being glued to technology, but when I asked the Baden students themselves, they deeply valued the chance to get outdoors. When I asked what other types of field trips they would like to do, they said, “More like this. More getting outside in nature.” “It was cool to do something outside and learn away from the classrooms,” a second student added. When I asked another Baden senior, what he would go back and change about his education experience if he could, he said, “Take away student distraction–the technology. Take them out into the real world.”
When we walked up to the tree course activities, I got a little queasy because I’ve done enough activities like this myself to know they are higher than they look once you get up there, and they already looked super high from the ground. I saw so many students have that moment of realizing just how high up they were and that there was no way down but to jump. And, they overcame their fears, traversing tight ropes and beams between the tree tops, with only a student they had just met that morning to catch them via the rope tied to their harness. After jumping off platforms and diving boards high above the ground, students reported the thrill of overcoming their fears, a sense of achievement, the joy of doing something new, and just plain old relief that they made it back down to earth.
Some students were more cautious, but by this point Leo was exclaiming, “I hella want to do this again!” As his peers did the activities, he gave them tips and encouraged them. And, when other students on the ground snickered at another student’s hesitation high up in the trees, he protectively snapped, “Shut up, don’t laugh!” He made sure he did every single activity before it was time to go home. I wasn’t able to watch all groups of students, but I heard Ella was quite the daredevil herself.
When Mr. Lopez brought the sweaty Baden students together for one final circle at the end of the day, they described their experience as thrilling, challenging, exciting, good teamwork, hot, and as something that got them out of their comfort zone. Mr. Lopez asked the group, “How many of you didn’t know what to expect when you came here?” Many of the students raised their hands. “And, how many of you were totally surprised at what happened today?” A few more hands raised. He said, “That’s because you had an adventure. You went up in those trees and you didn’t know exactly what was going to happen or how you were going to feel. This isn’t an amusement park. This is an adventure park.”
*name changed to protect privacy