At a glance, the high ropes course behind the Whitefish High School looks like a jungle gym, but to instructor Tim Shaw the matrix of cargo nets, trapezes and suspended obstacles is a dangling classroom.
“There’s still a lot of assumption that coming out to the challenge course means playing for a day,” Shaw, lead instructor at the course for the past three years, said. “We are trying to differentiate this course from the typical high-adventure course. It’s not a thrill-based pursuit but an educative pursuit.”
The idea that students can tease important life lessons out of a curriculum that revolves around an outdoor gymnasium has been evolving in the Whitefish School District for 15 years, and has been met with varying degrees of administrative support.
One of the biggest challenges of running the course through the years is the dearth of willing and able instructors, while convincing the school district that a challenge course can hone important personal skills like problem solving, troubleshooting, patience and decision making has required a paradigm shift.
Started in 1998, the ropes course must be managed by instructors who hold three-year certifications from the Association for Challenge Course Technology, like Shaw, who works at the Montana Academy, and Kyle Fedderly, a teacher at Whitefish High School.
There’s also an annual cost of about $3,000 to inspect, insure and maintain the course, and the Whitefish school board voted at the beginning of the year to continue running the course for an additional year with the stipulation that use of the course must increase if it is to remain a viable component of the school’s curriculum.
Shaw, who manages the course in a partnership with the Whitefish City Parks and Recreation Department and the school district, said he hopes to draw more interest in the course by gearing it toward a variety of users, including corporate programs and nonprofits in addition to the school district.
In the past, the district rented the facility out to a variety of user groups to generate revenue and offset the annual expenses, but in recent years, without a full-time coordinator, use of the course diminished.
“Many of them didn’t know we had a course,” Shaw said of the school board members. “We are trying to revitalize the program by working with the school board to show them what experiential learning is all about and how we can use it not only in the curriculum but with all kinds of community groups. It’s a far more educative tool than most people realize. I’m really trying to encourage the school district to view this course as having a lot of versatility.”
The school district began examining the future of the ropes course in the spring of 2012 and formed a committee to determine if it made sense to continue to fund and operate the course.
Last January, the board voted unanimously to keep the course operating for another year, and Shaw, who has a master’s degree in experiential education, has dedicated himself to building the program to appeal to a broader user group in the Flathead Valley.
This fall he’ll begin working at the course full-time, and hopes his effort will serve as catalyst to increase awareness about the life skills and tools it helps users develop.
“I like to describe the course as a textbook rather than a manual,” he said. “A manual tells you that if you assemble all the pieces correctly and in order you will come out with the exact same outcome every time. Whereas with a textbook there’s a versatility, and the information at hand augments whatever lesson you are trying to teach.”
Sustaining the course is particularly important, Shaw said, because there are only two other facilities in the Flathead Valley – at Whitefish Mountain Resort and Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in Lakeside.
“We are the only course marketing it as experiential education,” Shaw said. “We live in a place with unlimited access to outdoors activities and among a culture of people who are passionate about those activities, but we have almost no awareness of the importance of experiential education. I think it would be powerful for Whitefish to adopt this as a signature.”
To reserve a session, contact Shaw at 406-250-6156.
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