Last year, a group of 40 founding freshmen from Bluff City High School spent one night at Camp Chia La Key in Huntsville, Alabama. Participants were offered a spot on the trip based on behavior and attendance. The trip began with a tour of Alabama A&M University, where students had lunch on campus and learned more about the university, and ended at the YMCA campground.
“The trip was Principal Cleaves’ idea and I thought he was crazy,” recalled Stephanie Wortham, the counselor at Bluff City who formerly worked at other Green Dot schools: Fairley High School, Kirby Middle School, and at Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles. “It felt like a big trip, and many students told me they haven’t spent long amounts of time in the outdoors before.” Students spent their two days at camp canoeing, swimming in the river, paddle boarding, playing basketball, and participating in a ropes obstacle course.
Cell phone reception was sparse, and the screens that have come to dominate much of our lives were few and far between. Students didn’t seem to mind. “A lot of them were really appreciative to have the time to spend with their friends away from video games. The campsite made dinner and kids raved about the food and smores,” shared Wortham. At the evening campfire, students reflected on Bluff City’s founding year. Wortham hosted an all-female campfire and Cleaves hosted a discussion for the male students.
“One of our students said she’s never been outdoors like this, and that led to a discussion with the other student,” reflected Wortham. “They seemed to appreciate being in nature, and in general, this group of kids seems to have bonded more.” This was a particularly powerful outcome in the eyes of Cleaves and Wortham: “The team building activities like zip lining, the scavenger hunt, and the ropes course really helped. When they came back to school more students started eating together and hanging together.”
Students left camp feeling more connected with each other and with the natural world around them. Because of the successful trip, the tradition will continue and each class will have an opportunity travel. Ideally, the Bluff City team would like to take sophomores on an overnight trip to St. Louis, take juniors on a multi-day trip outside of Memphis, and fly with a group of seniors in their final year. “Most of our students haven’t been too far out of Memphis, and we want to change that,” said Wortham.
In just two years, Bluff City has built a strong college-going culture and sense of school pride. The school earned a Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) score of 5 -- the highest score a school can achieve in the state. The score reflects strong student outcomes driven by the structural support systems that Green Dot implements on its campuses. We are confident that the combination of rigorous college-prep curriculum and opportunities for the whole child to grow will continue to make Bluff City a place where students succeed for many years to come.