New Orleans, La. –
Eleven-year-old Deron Magee and 13-year-old Shannon Demesme turn their canoe on a dime while paddling a City Park lagoon. Nearby, their peers Maritza Zamora and RonDeaja Craig maneuver their canoe with similar confidence. They look like seasoned pros. In fact, none of these city kids had a chance for much activity like this until they got involved with the Louisiana Outdoors Outreach Program, which everyone here calls LOOP.
Throughout the year, they and some 1,200 other students in the area will go canoeing and hiking, they'll camp out and they'll learn to complete a challenging ropes course strung above the treetops of City Park. Deron Magee is a sixth grader at Lafayette Academy Charter School, and he says it's been an eye-opening experience.
"When I come to City Park I see water, I see trees, I see animals, like birds and other things, like water moccasins in the water, sometimes," says Deron. "It's been fun because, well, it's hard to explain but it's fun because you get to come out here on certain days and you get to canoe and do other things that you don't do on an everyday basis."
First formed in the mid-90s, LOOP has developed into a network of outdoor clubs for under-served students in local public schools. It's now a state program with a physical home in City Park, while support comes from the state, the city, and increasingly in this period of budget cuts, from private contributions as well. Its activities look like good clean fun, but LOOP founder and director Dan Forman explains that in fact they're geared toward developing students' full potential.
"So that's all the catch phrases. Self-esteem, conflict resolution, perseverance," Forman says. "But really through a model that's action orientated. So there's no speeches, there's no lectures, there's no reading. It's really through doing."
The program works as a partnership with individual schools around the area, and the LOOP curriculum now extends from third grade through high school. The program isn't explicitly tied to classroom lessons or aimed at boosting test results, but Forman says it helps prepare students in a different way.
"And I think a lot of times, before you can even get to the academics, you need to deal with the life skills," he says. "It's going to be very difficult to have kids break into teams and work on projects, or to persevere through difficult problems that they're facing in class if they don't have these life skills. And I truly believe that we help to develop these life skills."
But don't take Forman's word for it. Listen to 13-year-old Maritza Zamora, a student at Esperanza Charter School now in her second year with LOOP.
"There was an experience in the ropes course, where I was 40 feet high, and I was half way through it," she says. "I was saying to Mr. Dan, I can't do it no more I'm giving up.' But he told me keep going farther' and what happened was I got all the way to the top. I made it."
For more information on LOOP, click here.