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Schools & Program Visits - July, 2001 Issue #83 

(A program of The Brown Schools)
Austin, Texas
Robert Nolan, Program Director

[Lon’s Visit on April 9, 2001]

On Track is a coed wilderness program that operates on the state owned Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area in the hill country of central Texas, about 130 miles west of Austin. Upon entering the gates of the several thousand acres of fenced exotic game preserve, one feels like they’ve been transported half way around the world. As we drove down the dirt road to where the students were camping, we passed numerous African animals that are rarely seen in this country outside of a zoo. The abundant African animals combined with the hot and relatively dry terrain reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of the African savanna. This alone would cause On Track to provide a unique experience for the participants, but this program has other unique aspects as well.

The average length of this program is 28 days. Their rolling admission allows students to be enrolled at anytime; they don’t have to wait for a specific starting date. The orientation usually lasts for four days, during which time the new student can talk only to staff; they are kept on the outskirts of the group they will be joining. During this time the student is taught basic wilderness skills, student agreements are explained, and the staff makes sure each student understands his or her rights. The student is then asked to sign a contract and the relationships are started, based on clear communications.

Once this orientation process is complete, the student becomes a part of the group and starts working through what is called “Passages.” Roughly performing the function of levels, each point of the compass describes a “Passage,” complete with a designated animal or bird. Each passage encompasses certain important issues, often using African metaphors to encourage the understanding necessary for personal growth in these areas. For example, the First Passage is the “East” which symbolizes “New Beginnings,” the place of the rising sun; the place where each new day begins. “New Beginnings” require preparation, illumination and wisdom, the lessons that can be learned from the “East.” As students’ understanding of these relevant issues deepen, they work their way around the compass. Each “Passage” has its own lessons, each building on previous ones, aiming to foster a deeper understanding of how the world works and how humans can best survive as mature and constructive members of society.

Since progress through the “Passages” varies from student to student, often more than half of the students need longer than 28 days to accomplish the personal growth work that is necessary for successful completion of the program. I was informed the average extension is one week. Some only require a few extra days, while others need considerably longer than one week.

On Track’s Clinical Psychologist interacts with each enrollee and if requested by the parent, a formal assessment can also be provided. The Psychologist maintains scheduled sessions with the parents as part of the program’s effort to encourage parents to focus on their own growth in parallel with the work their child is doing. The Psychologist maintains scheduled contact with the students in the field, providing a therapeutic element. The program is making progress working with insurance companies so that more parents can obtain insurance coverage for the program.

Along with the regular contacts with the parents by staff and students, each student is required to write three specific letters during his or her stay. The first is the impact letter, which describes the student’s initial reactions to arriving in the program. The second letter is about accountability, in which the student gets more honest about what he or she was really doing back home. The third letter is about commitment and relates to what has been learned and what the student is going to do differently in the future.

The program uses single sex groups whenever enrollment numbers allow. Usually this means coed groups occur during the winter, with single sex groups starting sometime in the Spring. They had just successfully converted to single sex groups in March, shortly before I arrived for my visit.

Group consequences are an important tool in the program’s structure. Each group is assigned a sequence of activities, depending on the weather, that need to be accomplished within a certain amount of time. The activity can be easily accomplished within the required time period if the group works together as a team. Typically the students who enrolled in the On Track program are self centered, so learning to work as a team is the first serious challenge all new students encounter. This difficulty becomes obvious very early in the program when the group misses the time deadline. This allows the students who have been in the program longer to have a chance to exercise responsibility, patience and mentoring as they help the new student learn the basic lesson of how to work cooperatively with others.

I was informed that the weather was mild for Texas during the season I visited. I thought the students I saw in the field looked pretty good. The male groups struggled more to develop a team than did the girls, reflecting the presence of a few quite resistant boys. I had a chance to talk with a group of girls without the staff being present about what they thought of the program. Their view was positive and upbeat about their experience, mixed in of course with some yearning for the trappings of civilization. They were especially cute, with their manipulative abilities coming out when one asked if I happened to have any chocolate on me. Chocolate, of course, is not allowed on the trail. I answered, “No, but if I did, wouldn’t sharing it be out of agreement?” They said, “Oh no, we wouldn’t eat it, we just would like to pass it under our noses and smell it and dream!” Right!!!

My conversation with the boys group was more stilted. About half of them talked positively, optimistically, with clear eyes, while a couple of the others radiated their desire to be anyplace else on the planet. This of course makes for poor communication with guarded and manipulative conversation and of course a lot of unnecessary struggles when attempting to complete activities.

There are two unique approaches On Track uses that are considerably different from most emotional growth and therapeutic wilderness programs. The first significant difference is that each student starts with relatively high-tech camping and evolves to more Stone Age camping as they go through the program. As an example, a student might start using a tent for shelter, carrying it as he or she moves from one campsite to the next. Once the student masters building his or her shelter, then the tent can be left behind, making for a lighter pack. The example of making a load lighter and easier by taking on more personal responsibility is one of the lessons all students learn fairly quickly. This metaphor for moving from dependency to self-reliance and mastery of one’s environment has the obvious therapeutic benefits of increased self-esteem and emotional connection with one’s self and parents. It helps foster taking responsibility for one’s actions.

The other unique approach involves food. While in the program, participants eat a healthy balanced diet that meets their needs, resulting in physical outcomes that in some ways reflect other program outcomes. Many boys who are overweight lose unnecessary pounds, while some girls who are seriously underweight gain lean muscle. The students eat very well for being in a primitive environment. On Track has found a more varied menu downplays food as an issue and obsession, except perhaps for girls who love chocolate! Program staff feels this eliminates the situation where a student is so focused on dreams of food he or she is unable to focus on the issues that landed them in this program.

These unique approaches used by On Track appear to provide participants with the opportunity to grow emotionally in an environment that feels safe.

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