Armed with orange “I Support Team” signs, it was standing-room-only at Redwood High School Wednesday night as hundreds of students, parents, teachers and staff showed their support for keeping the one-year alternative academic wilderness program for 24 Tamalpais Union High School District juniors a year.
“I learned I was not alone,” said a former student who participated in Team in 2009. He broke down into tears as he told the story of his father who died while he was in high school, and the challenges of being raised by a single mother who was working two jobs so they could afford to remain in the community.
“I know I was in high school for four years, but Team was the only year I was ‘in’ high school; the only year I was part of the class,” he said.
Another Redwood student talked about how she floated through classes, if she even bothered to show up at all. But when her 1.8 G.P.A. prohibited her from playing basketball, she turned to the Team program. She remembers Chuck Ford, who has overseen the program for 21 of its 22 years in existence, asking her if she was willing to do the work.
“I decided, at that moment, that I was going to take a stand to live a happier life,” she said.
Ford is retiring at the end of this school year, which has triggered the re-evaluation of the Team program, district officials have said. The program, which operates through Tamiscal High in Larkspur, focuses on community service, career exploration and wilderness adventure in places like Joshua Tree National Park and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and ropes course leadership. It gets up to 100 applicants per year for 24 slots.
“Each year we field many phone calls from students and parents very upset they didn’t get admitted to Team,” said Tam Union Superintendent Laurie Kimbrel.
The Tam Union board heard many emotional and life changing stories in light of Kimbrel’s recommendation to the kill the program and distribute the $260,000 budget and learning principles among Tamalpais, Drake and Redwood in order to reach a much larger portion of the district’s more than 3,500 students. The funds would be used for the three large high schools to develop their own experiential programs.
But after a campaign in opposition to the proposed termination — which included at least 67 pages of letters to board members, 3,214 signatures on a Change.org petition, and 3,588 members on the Save The Team Program!" Facebook page — Kimbrel added a second option, Choice A, that would keep the current program intact. It would also involve making to-be-determined cuts somewhere else in the district to find a way to bring Team's concepts to more students — particularly low income and minority students who are at a higher academic and emotional risks, she said.
In the past six years, district records indicate there has been only one black student and three Hispanic students in the program, according to Kimbrel. She blames part of that on the fact that the program is held at Tamiscal, forcing students from other schools to travel to Larkspur.
Kimbrel thanked the community for its support of the program.
“Choice A came from your input,” she said, applauding the “civility of discussion,” “passion,” and “beautifully articulated letters without anger or malice.” The Tam Union High School board did not intend to make any decisions, and Kimbral said the discussion will likely its the next meeting in March.
The Tam Union High School board listened intently to many heartfelt stories, but questioned whether, as board member Susan Schmidt put it, the program has “shifted in its intent of who it’s going to serve.”
She read aloud letters from when the program began in 1995 and 1996 where students who were accepted were “barely getting by,” felt their “academic future was increasingly bleak” and were “floundering in a state of depression,” and compared it to students accepted now who have “always excelled academically” and have been described as “an excellent student but felt something was missing in her life.”
“I feel a really heavy heart for those students who are not chosen," said board member Cindy McCauley
Especially with rising enrollment, Kimbrel stressed the importance of incorporating Team principles such as experiential learning, leadership, and a high level of personalization and engagement into programs that reach beyond 24 students a year.
“The success of the program is not just about outdoor education,” Kimbrel said. “It’s not having mini Team programs.” She suggested establishing a committee to research ways to bring the Team principals to other programs such as theater or journalism.
Some, however, felt the wilderness component was important.
“I don’t know if you can get the same effect if it’s not an outdoor program,” said Redwood student Jake Horan.
Maintaining the current program is also dependent on finding a teacher to replace Ford, Kimbral said. Ford has been working with Team program co-manager Nikole Denton Homitz on a post-retirement transition plan.
“For the past two years, he has mentored and prepared me to take over Team,” she said.
Ford said the number of people who showed their support for the program was overwhelming, and he fielded a long line of hellos and hugs after the meeting. Although the wilderness part has tremendous power, it’s not necessarily for everyone, he said. The success of Team comes from forcing together a small group of people for an extended period of time, creating a sense of community, and focusing on learning that goes far beyond grades, Ford said. What good is a 4.0 G.P.A. if a student feels anxiety and depression, feels the need to drink or do drugs, or is suffering from family problems, he asked.
Regardless of the future of Team, Ford called on the Tam Union High School board to address the bigger issue.
“I sincerely hope,” he said, “that there’s a deeper discussion of how we define success in schools.”