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Freshman academy aims to harness skills, power of community

School within a school

Kenowa Hills — A group of Kenowa Hills High School freshmen yelled upward toward classmate Bryson Arnold, who was a third of the way up a rock-climbing wall: “Keep going! Don’t look down!”

The encouragement from classmates continued: “You’re doing great!” 

Almost to the half-way point, Bryson looked down, realized how high he was and decided he wanted to return to terra firma. 

“Looking at (the wall) you think you can go all the way and then you look down,” Bryson said once he had both feet on the ground. “I gave it my best.” 

Later, Izzy Armstrong climbed all the way to the top of the wall. After landing back on the ground, she pumped both fists in the air and yelled, “That was amazing! I did it!”

Said freshman Edward Vincent as he waited his turn: “I’m not excited about it, but I’m pushing forward regardless.” 

Freshman academy students practice communication skills while navigating the spider maze at Adventure Point

Trying Something New

The small group of Freshman Academy members spent their morning rock climbing, in addition to four other team-building activities, at Adventure Point in Walker.

The outing was part of a new partnership with the Boy Scouts of America Michigan Crossroads Council.

Principal Nate Robrahn and Assistant Principal Charlie O’Dell said the academy provides support and opportunities to try something new.

“We wanted to create a smaller school for students transitioning from middle to high school,” Superintendent Jerry Hopkins said. “That transition can be hard and we’re excited to have a school within the school they will attend for all four years.” 

At the academy, all ninth-graders attend classes within the high school building but in their own wing with two teachers per subject designated to teaching their grade. 

Ten staff members instruct this year’s incoming class and share resources to teach in a smaller, more communal setting.

O’Dell has worked closely with Boy Scout leaders and academy staff to develop and implement the program this school year. 

At the start and end of the year, students will participate in leadership activities through Adventure Point’s Summit Leadership Program, O’Dell said. The district worked with Adventure Point to cover the cost of the 200+ freshman students to participate. 

As part of the program, ninth-graders will visit Adventure Point seven times for daylong workshops throughout the school year. Spending time outside of a traditional classroom setting is one of the academy’s goals.

“They’re learning soft skills through this program, skills we expect our students to have when they graduate in four years as part of our Profile of a Graduate,” O’Dell said.

A group of freshmen successfully catch classmate Brooklyn Bierema during a trust fall exercise

Harnessing Skills

Empowered learner, problem solver and skilled communicator are three of the five social and emotional skills Kenowa Hills strives to instill in their graduates, according to the graduate profile, and four values of the leadership summit activities align. 

“We focus on four team-building concepts: collaboration, citizenship, communication and challenge, and each activity ties in with a different concept,” Leadership Program Director Graham McGeehan said. 

Students work on “challenge” through rock wall-climbing and build “citizenship” by learning to trust their classmates during trust fall exercises.

“Challenge is one of my favorite things because you get people who go all the way up the wall or their challenge might be to get their harness on,” McGeehan said. 

“We want to see students give an attempt and apply what they learned to the school year. If they can accomplish this here, they can accomplish things at school.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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