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Schools & Program Visits - Aug, 1998 Issue #53

“Dedicated to Creating a Lasting Impression”

(A part of The Brown Schools, Community Living Programs Division)
Austin, Texas
Susan Forsberg, Admissions Coordinator 
Lon’s Visit: June 28, 1998 

On Track is a coed program that averages 28 days, operating in the hill country of central Texas, about 130 miles west of Austin, on the state owned Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Entering the gates of the several thousand acres fenced exotic game preserve feels like being transported half way around the world. Driving the dirt road to where the students were camping, we drove past numerous African animals that are rarely seen in this country outside a zoo. With the abundant African animals, and the hot and relatively dry landscape, the terrain looked like the pictures I’ve seen of the African savanna. This alone would make an On Track experience a unique one for their students. 

Although On Track is a relatively new program, starting early this year, it draws upon several years of experience since several of the staff has had extensive experience with short-term western programs. For example, Field Director Mark Wardle came to On Track after several years with Red Cliff Ascent in Utah. As a consequence, many of the techniques will be familiar to professionals who have worked with western short-term wilderness programs. The students “build their own shelters, cook their own meals over a fire, and study in the outdoors.” In addition, the students go through what is called Passages (roughly equivalent to “levels),” each of which is named after an animal. For example, the students start with the requirements for the East Passage, “the direction of the spotted-eagle, and its color is red. This is the place of the rising sun, and from where each day begins. East is the direction of new beginnings. New beginnings mean that we must make preparations. Illumination and wisdom are lessons that we can learn from the East.”

Next is South Passage, the “direction of the coyote,” with the color yellow. “South is the direction of growth. Growth requires energy and action to be effective. Trust and compassion are lessons that we learn from the South.” 

Then the West Passage, its color is black and “direction of the bear.” “West is the direction of strength. True strength requires experience and introspection. Responsibility and self- worth are the lessons that we learn from the West.”

Last is the North Passage, “the direction of the buffalo” with the color white. “North is the direction of renewal. Renewal requires service and gentleness. Leadership and gratitude are lessons that we learn from the North.”

Each Passage has its own requirements, which include Hard Skills, relating to survival in the wilderness, Soft Skills, relating to things like communication, initiative, etc, and Therapeutic Assignments, with specific accomplishments required. A student must finish all requirements on one Passage before moving to the next Passage and start on those requirements. 

There are two unique approaches On Track uses that are considerably different from most emotional growth wilderness programs. The first significant difference is each student starts with relatively high-tech camping, evolving to more Stone Age camping as they go through the program. As an example, a student might start using a tent for shelter, carrying the tent with him/her as they move from place to place. Once the student masters building his/her own shelter, he/she can leave the tent behind, making his/her pack lighter. The example of making his/her load lighter and easier by taking on more personal responsibility is one of the lessons all the students learn fairly quickly. 

The other unique approach involves food. The students eat very well for being in a primitive environment. The sample menu I was given included Poptarts, Milk, Hamburger and buns, Cheese, Pudding, Pancake mix, Apples and Yogurt. Rice, beans and lentils definitely were not the major fair as in most primitive wilderness programs. 

There are two reasons for this kind of menu. The first came from the state of Texas. When the state saw a menu based on the typical use of rice, beans and lentils, the response was “No Way, Not for Children in Our State!” So, a more varied menu was developed that satisfied the State. 

What On Track has found has been that the more varied menu removes food as an issue and an obsession. Their menu has drastically reduced food stealing, with all the subsequent sticky consequences. It also eliminates the situation where a student is so focused on dreams of food that he/she is unable to focus on the issues he/she was sent there for in the first place. The staff feels they have inadvertently stumbled onto something that contributes toward a more effective use of the limited time in which they have with the students. 

The Brown Schools corporate office seems solidly committed to success for On Track. The Brown Schools have an excellent reputation for developing and running medical model facilities such as treatment centers and hospitals. The development of a wilderness alternative approach such as On Track, along with acquiring the CEDU system, shows they are very committed to creating top-of-the-line alternative programs for working with children with behavior and/or emotional problems. 

Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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