Josh Otto is terrified of heights.
But that hasn’t stopped the Gruening Middle School seventh grader from facing his fear.
On Tuesday, April 24, Otto and a couple dozen Gruening and Central Middle School of Science students took a day off from class and spent it scaling Bartlett High’s cringe-inducing ropes course.
“I’m trying to break my fear,” Otto said after climbing higher than he ever had before. “It’s best to try, then to forget the fear.”
After a lunch break, Otto said he was determined to reach the top.
The field trip was part of Gruening’s Adventure Program. About 20 students have met Mondays and Wednesdays from 3 to 4:30 p.m. all year, participating in various activities, said physical education teacher Holly Odegard.
The after-school hours are spent training for each quarter’s culminating field trip, Odegard said.
“We gear them up to go on the adventures,” she said.
The year-old program has given students a chance to go biking, skiing and rock climbing.
The Adventure Program is funded via the United States Department of Defense’s Project Connect grant. The three-year grant targets academic, social and emotional needs of students from active-duty military families.
Along with Central and Gruening, Project Connect focuses on Bartlett and Eagle River High — the four schools in the Anchorage School District with the highest population of military students.
This year, 61 percent of Gruening students are from military families — by far the highest of the four schools.
“It’s increasing every year,” said principal Bobby Jefts, who’s been Gruening’s top administrator for five years.
Eagle River High (42 percent) has the second highest military population, followed by Bartlett (40 percent) and Central (36 percent).
ERHS also has an Adventure Program. Eagle River’s program has a classroom component, which focuses on social-emotional learning or “soft skills.”
Project Connect has been a success in its first two years, and ASD is seeking to extend the grant, ERHS principal Marty Lang said.
Gruening seventh grader Jourdin Bedwell said she likes the freedom Adventure Program supervisors grant to students.
“We get to do what we want,” she said. “It’s a good time to hang out with friends.”
Otto echoed her words.
“It’s an exciting experience to meet new people and have fun,” he said.
But the program offers more than just an opportunity to miss a few days of school each year, said Odegard, who serves as Gruening’s lead facilitator for Project Connect.
“They are getting a lot out of it,” she said. “Building who they are…it gives them a chance to experience different boundaries.”
And climbing ropes, ladders and suspended beams all day is no easy task.
“This is tough,” Odegard said. “This is tiring.”
Gruening also offers a homework club two days a week and has an activity bus, which takes students back to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson at 4:30 p.m.
Gruening lost funding for the bus last spring, Jefts said, and participation in after-school activities plummeted.
“The transportation is huge,” he said, because many families new to Alaska are nervous to drive during the winter months.
Gruening’s Adventure Program — half of the students are from military families — is a great way for new transfers to meet friends, Jefts said.
“The whole idea is to try to get them to connect with the community and the school,” he said.