FAIR HAVEN — Having just downed an ice-cream refresher after their morning workshops and exercises, students scattered to various starting lines on the Fair Haven Union High School campus for the long-awaited start of the annual Amazing Race last Thursday morning as a part of the Fair Haven Academy.
It’s on for the Mullets, the Wet Waters, the Powerpuff Girls, the DQs, the Goldfishes, the Pretzels, all members of the sixth season of the Fair Haven Academy, where almost 100 eighth-grade graduates spend two weeks of their summer at their soon-to-be new home at Fair Haven Union High School.
“This program is amazing,” said Principal Jason Rasco. “All of these kids with different identities from all these different schools — they come here, and they’re nervous,” Rasco said. “This program helps ease that transition.”
Determined students from Castleton, Hubbardton, Benson, Orwell and Fair Haven all crouched around their station leader who read out directions or riddles, before students then had to find Waldo, knock down a cup tower, or — after a running start — slide down a giant tarp covered in soap and water toward a game of flip-cup, before sliding back home.
“They run around the school, and stop at, like, 10 stations, and each station has a game,” said science teacher and co-director Ben Worthing.
Strolling the halls and the cafeteria, upperclassmen members of FHUHS Community Service Club act as mentors for the program, planning out fun activities for the students to complete and bonding with their new schoolmates slated to join them at the school in less than two months.
“By the time they graduate, they have about 200 hours of community service if they’ve done it every single year,” said co-director and music teacher Eddie Wilkins.
High schoolers Kendra Clark, Jordyn Howard, Anita Medrano, Lydia Aust and MaKayla Woodbury are all return mentors, many of whom attended the programs themselves and are headed for college.
Howard, now in her fourth year participating in the program, said she loves getting a sneak peek at her new schoolmates and offering them advice, and designing the Amazing Race mental and physical obstacle course.
“Knowing people in the school made it a lot less scary for me,” Howard said of her experience as an eighth-grade graduate and participant. “(The camp) builds confidence, builds bonds, and makes it so much easier (to acclimate).”
Kendra Clark, a sophomore, said she will transfer to Stafford this year to train to become a professional welder, and said the academy fast-tracked the process of making new friends by rapidly expanding her social circle when she attended.
“You feel kind of proud of yourself,” Woodbury said. “You’re actually here, making a difference, helping them.”
Worthing, now in his fifth year teaching at the academy, said the two-week immersion has featured everything from community service to MMA-type boxing, therapy dogs and even baby goats.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Worthing said. “During the year you’re teaching and trying to get to know the kids and have fun with them. This is just straight-up fun. There’s no assessments ... our whole goal is just to get them acquainted to the school and to each other.”
Worthing teaches the physical education workshop portion of the academy, teaching team-building exercises, educational games, and resurrecting old favorites like dodgeball.
“It’s still an awesome game,” Worthing said, laughing.
Wilkins said each of the participating students gets a half-credit toward their elective graduation requirements for attending the program that runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to noon Friday.
“It originated around eight years ago,” Wilkins said. “(It was) started as a way to get kids acclimated to the high school, to introduce them to the building, and to students from other schools in the district. ... This way, when they come in on day one of school, it’s not a total shock.”
Since its inception, the program has remained a voluntary program with a steady 85% retention rate, Wilkins said.
Eight teachers from FHUHS are paid through a VSAC Gear-Up grant to teach the workshops and provide general staff assistance for the program, so the students will know some of their teachers and be comfortable with them before their classes even begin, Wilkins said.
“Freshmen, as they come into the high school, are nervous in general,” Wilkins said. “We’re making sure they’re comfortable coming in on day-one.”
When 8 a.m. rolls around, the students arrive at school, starting with breakfast, with a mid-morning snack and then lunch, each of which is provided by a kitchen staffed with Fair Haven Concerned volunteers cooking meals for the students and any community member who wants to join them.
“This opens us up to be a ‘host site,’” Wilkins said. “Anyone is welcome to join us.”
With their initial registration forms, Wilkins said, the students choose their ideal workshop topics, whether it’s nature, art, equine studies, music, media and stage or a class based solely on dogs — training and caring for them.
This year, Worthing said, they took the students on a college tour of Castleton University and taught a class on college preparation in addition to their other more typical offerings.
New this year is a giant projector screen, and Worthing said he hopes to stretch it across the field goal posts for outdoor movies with theater-style popcorn.
“We’ll see if they let us,” Worthing said.