They play team-building games in a swimming pool, eat lunch while tied to a friend, puzzle out seemingly impossible challenges and, after the sun goes down, pour out their hearts on stage for all to see.
But to co-founder and head counselor Mark Schoenleber, the best part about Ashland High’s Fresh Start program is the end, when the incoming freshmen and the counselors gather one last time in the retreat center’s giant, open foyer and talk about what the last day-and-a-half has meant to them.
They sit in a circle and go around the room, counselors and students alike, one at a time. Before they began Tuesday morning you could hear a pin drop. The whole scene was enough to make a typical teenager bolt for the nearest exit. Then something strange happens. They open up.
One boy with dark, short-cropped hair still wearing his pajamas — the students stay overnight at the Foundation for Meditative Studies center off Dead Indian Memorial Road — speaks metaphorically, comparing himself and his peers to a tree that starts small and naked and needs a drop of water.
“Fresh Start is that drop of water,” he says, without a hint of irony.
Later, a girl with long brown hair stuffed into a baseball cap says, “This place made me feel like I was actually normal.”
And on it goes. One student thanks others for their friendship, another is proud to say she woke up “stupid-happy.”
To the students, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a perfect send off to the next adventure in their young lives, but to Schoenleber, a retired art teacher who helped start the freshman orientation program in 1995, it’s just another day at the office.
He has a million stories. Once, a student shoved a counselor (and his cell phone) into the pool. A few years later, that same student turned out to be an excellent counselor. Another year, a boy stood up during the final circle meeting and apologized for being a bully in middle school.
“That,” Schoenleber said, “is what keeps us coming back here.”
Of course, he points out, the heartfelt revelations that inspired random hugs and even some tears Tuesday morning didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Schoenleber’s staff, including several teachers and about 20 student counselors for each of the three retreats, lead the students through a series of challenges designed to break down barriers, encourage new friendships and teach problem-solving techniques.
As an added bonus, the students get to know each other.
“You can’t just walk in the room and say, ‘OK, everybody get in the circle and we’re going to talk about really important things,’” said AHS band teacher Jon Soderberg-Chase, who’s helped run the program for the last seven years. “That’s not authentic.”
The challenges begin almost as soon as the students step off the bus to applause as the counselors welcome them to the center, 13 miles east of Ashland.
After Schoenleber briefs the students on the ground rules — no put-downs, respect people’s privacy, etc. — and teaches a deep breathing technique, they’re divided into color groups and learn each other’s names. Along the way, the students pick a partner that they either don’t know or hardly know and they interview each other, asking questions such as, “What is your favorite food?” and “Where do you like to relax?”
Next is "Toxic Waste," a game in which half the students are blindfolded and charged with moving a cup of “toxic waste” water from point A to point B without spilling, while their partners, who are not blindfolded, direct them. Then, they switch blindfolds and they do it again.
After that, the students are asked to line up in the order in which they were born, organizing the line using only nonverbal communication. Still in line, the students then form a bucket brigade, a human conveyor belt, and quickly move their gear from the U-haul truck into each of their assigned rooms.
A series of games follow:
In "Hogtied," students are bound by the wrist to a partner they don’t know and the two strangers eat lunch together.
In "Yurt Circle," students hold hands to form a massive circle then, on command, half lean in and half lean out. When executed properly, usually after a few tries, the circle becomes a giant amoeba, flexing in an out with every “Yurt” command, but never breaking.
In "All Aboard," six students are tasked with fitting onto a 2- by 8-foot board that’s floating in the pool. They’ll try just about everything, including climbing on top of one another, before they realize — following a problem-solving session — that with a little bit of ingenuity and teamwork, it can be done.
In "Piranha River," students must figure out a way, using ropes and boards, to shuttle their entire team across “Piranha River.” The first time they did it Monday, it took 32 minutes. The second time, it took nine. Then, students use the same problem-solving technique to tackle an issue that they may deal with at Ashland High, such as finding the time for both homework and social time with friends.
“It’s just a way to start thinking about the problems you encounter in your lives and how you can systematically sit down and work through those,” Schoenleber said.
After dinner, the tone changes for "Big Questions." Each student writes a question they have about Ashland High on a slip of paper. Then they’re collected, thrown into a pile and read and answered by Schoenleber and his staff. The questions run the gamut, from "How long is lunch?" to "How do you deal with the loss of a loved one?”
Students and counselors are encouraged to share their opinions throughout, and usually the resulting discussions branch off in unexpected ways. The trick, Schoenleber says, is knowing when to listen and when to redirect the conversation. A former Natural Helpers counselor, Schoenleber has learned that if you wait long enough the students will do most of the work for you.
“In drugs and alcohol you’re going to get all these different, varying opinions, the same way parents of these kids have varying opinions about it,” he said. “But what’s awesome about it is, if you can hold back, the group will self-balance. You’ll hear something and sort of think, I should jump in on that and say that’s not right. But if you wait long enough the kids will do that.”
The "Big Questions" portion can go on for some time — on Monday, it began at 7 p.m. and didn't end until 11.
“You always have to cut it off,” Schoenleber said. “The girls at this age, they’re just all of a sudden jammed. We’re talking about deep, intense subjects and most of them are into it. And some of the boys are amazingly articulate. There are some soulful 14-year-old dudes out there. But for some of them, they’d much rather be sliding on the floor in their socks.”
When the talk is over, the students have ice cream, then are invited to take the stage and perform for the group. It’s not mandatory, but there’s never a shortage of entertainment at Fresh Start, often from unlikely sources — a quiet girl who breaks out a ukulele, for instance.
It’s not an accident. After a full day of breaking through barriers, students suddenly are more likely to open up in a public setting — at first a little, then a lot. Which was part of the plan all along.
“I think that there are some misunderstandings about it,” Soderberg-Chase said. “People who just don’t get it say, ‘Oh, you just sit around and talk about your feelings.’ Or they really love it and they think it’s magic. And neither of those is true. Schoenleber has really figured out over 20 years this process to quickly connect kids and go through some problem solving together.”
Harper Conner, a 16-year-old counselor and incoming junior at AHS, agrees.
“It’s such a huge growing and learning time (for students),” she said. “I look back at middle school and I’m like, ‘What was I thinking?’ It’s a really good opportunity to foster and help change. That’s kind of what Fresh Start is all about, just really nurturing the four years that you’re going to have at the high school.”
The results speak for themselves. In 1995, the dropout rate at Ashland High was 7.5 percent and the freshmen failure rate was 10 percent. Since the birth of Fresh Start, both those numbers have steadily declined. Now, Schoenleber says, they’re both at 2 percent.
Has Fresh Start been the catalyst? Nobody can say for sure, but the students’ interactions Tuesday morning paint a flattering picture. The students first participated in "Strength Bombardment" — they write on a slip of paper a positive message for each member of their group — then mulled about, talking in groups of five or six, playing games, laughing.
“Well, at first they’re always kind of shy and stay in their little groups, but slowly they got to know each other better and better and it seemed like they learn a lot by the end,” said Raymond Impara, 16, a student counselor and incoming junior. “Right now, everyone is OK with hanging out with basically anyone they run into, and at the beginning they never would have done that.”
The hope, Soderberg-Chase said, is that they’ll take what they’ve learned with them to Ashland High.
As one student said during the final meeting, “Now, if I see you in the halls, it doesn’t have to be awkward.”
“And I think that it really does more than almost anything is create a really positive culture of support every day at school,” Soderberg-Chase said. “Not every day is Fresh Start. That’s part of the thing. You take them up here, and it’s kind of an intense experience. But it kind of creates this idea that we’re all in this together.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469.