WAWONA -- Imagine being in Yosemite National Park for 40 days. Sounds pretty fun.
Now imagine the stay with no cell phones or Internet, exercise and academics every day, cooking all of your own meals and a weeklong backpacking trip. Still fun?
This is the experience several Merced County students lived this summer in the Wawona area of Yosemite National Park during the Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC) Program, an intensive leadership and literacy program for English language learners in high school.
Six of the 10 students are from Dos Palos, one is from Atwater, one is from Livingston and two are from outside Merced County.
Sponsored in part by the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and UC Merced, the program focuses on literacy, leadership, and life skills -- in a setting that was new to some of the students.
The students' 40th day was July 26.
Dos Palos High School student Ricardo Amancio, who had never been to the Sierra Nevada, called the program a "great experience." Though he first thought: "I'm gonna get eaten by a bear."
Besides daily exercise and extended camping trips, lesson plans are based on three areas: English, leadership and environmental science.
Throughout the 40-day program, there are about 25 lesson plans for English and literature, 40 for leadership and 15 for environmental science.
"We're trying to teach them to take care of their bodies and have a greater respect for nature," said Jennifer Gurecki, director of the ARC program.
And she is serious when she talks about taking care of their bodies -- the 39th day of the program was a five-mile run.
"When students aren't working on expeditions, they're working on academics," said Gurecki.
In the last week of the student's 40-day stay, they taught Oakhurst-area elementary and junior high students how watersheds work and the importance of groundwater as a main source of drinking water.
Students designed the lesson plans and poster boards for the younger students -- in Spanish and English -- and asked students questions about the material covered.
"There are many different ways we can help the meadows," said ARC student Ernie Rubio of Santa Ynez. He went on to discuss restoration -- naturally, or enhanced by humans -- and how students could write to their elected officials about how important it is to keep natural habitats natural.
Shauna Potockey, branch chief of education for Yosemite who was visiting the program for the day, said, "I think (ARC)'s a very successful, innovative program. It definitely pushes the limits of what an outdoor education program can be like."
This was the first group to "graduate" from Wawona, with previous ARC groups meeting near Truckee and Santa Ynez.
ARC started five years ago as a summer program, and has grown in capacity to provide essential follow-up support to its students with ARC staff visiting the student's school sites throughout the school year.
Gurecki admits that for students who have never been in an outdoor, mountainous setting, the stress of a seven-day backpacking trip can be both physically and emotionally draining.
She said different students view different parts of the program as challenging.
"Depending on the student, it's either the backpacking trip or the public poetry reading" that are the most difficult, she said. "The writing assignments that we give push them."
Students work on poetry throughout their stay, and give a public reading at the end of the 40 days.
According to pre- and post-tests based on the California High School Exit Exam given to ARC students, they improve as much as 23 percent. And the passing rate for ARC graduates on the CAHSEE is an astounding 95 percent.
Amanda Tenison, guidance counselor for Dos Palos High School, said the statistics for the program are great, but parents needed more than that to let their children leave for most of the summer.
"When this whole idea was first pitched to me my biggest concern was the parent's buy-in," said Tenison.
To ease any concerns, Tenison scheduled a parent information night, sent home letters and worked with the migrant education department to get the word out.
"Setting that meeting up was so crucial," she said. She also had a staff meeting and teachers had the opportunity to recommend students. "They're with them every day. That was very helpful."
Gurecki, the ARC director, came and shared information with the parents of not only what the students would be doing, but the end result of the program -- a better understanding of nature, discipline and academics.
"The parents want to see your face, they want to see who you are," Tenison said. And Gurecki made the parents feel more confident about the program and its results.
"Its about fostering relationships and an ongoing mentoring program," added Tenison, referring to the site visits from ARC instructors.
In all, students get to spend most of their summer in what many consider one of the most majestic places in the world, and get a solid foundation for the rest of their education.
For more information on ARC, visit www.arcprogram.org or call Jennifer Gurecki at (530) 416-5682.