DANVILLE — Burlington middle school students attending the district's camp-like summer school Wednesday got some first-hand examples of the power of having a can-do attitude.
The summer school program, Camp Journey, is in its second year at Camp L-Kee-Ta. Six school staff acting as camp counselors, two instruction coaches and several district administrators have spent the past two weeks working with students on academics as well as character building — with a focus on cooperation, gratitude, optimism and empathy — in a camp-like setting.
The camp typically begins with academics before moving onto other activities in the afternoons. On Wednesday, students got an afternoon visit from Trevor Ragan, a motivational speaker who specializes in the science behind learning. The district signed a $7,000 contract, paid for with at-risk and professional development funds, with Ragan in December to spend three days working with students and staff as well as the Iowa National Guard's fitness camp. On Monday, Ragan talked to students about the science behind learning. He returned Wednesday to remind them of the importance of believing in their capacity to learn.
"If you don't believe you can learn something, you're not going to practice it, and then you can't learn it," he said, reminding them of neuroplasticity, which he spoke to them about in greater detail earlier in the week.
When Ragan was finished, students broke into groups of 10 or 11 to embark on a six-station obstacle course, each of which required them to work together as a team. It also required a fair amount of empathy. When one student had difficulty climbing through the "spider web" of rope tied between two trees, another student could be heard giving words of encouragement.
"What I've really been impressed with is their attitude," said Michael Carper, a middle school technology integration coach.
About halfway through the obstacle course, there was a time out.
Seven Olympians arrived to talk to the students about what it took to become an Olympic athlete, share some words of wisdom and answer questions from students. The athletes have spent the past week at the Iowa National Guard in Middletown training alongside other local students participating in the Guard's fitness camp.
"Anyone is capable of being an Olympian," said Sgt. Emily Sweeney, who completed in the 2018 U.S. Olympics Women's Luge Singles and was the 2013 Junior World Champion. "You just have to work hard."
Spc. Jesse Cervantes, a two-time All Army boxing champion and 2016 PAL national bronze medalist, told the students its OK to fail as long as they learn from it.
"The thing about losing is it's actually a lesson," Cervantes said. "We've all failed once in our life... at least."
It was those words of wisdom that stuck with 12-year-old Xzavion Baker, who practices basketball every day. He never thought he would race an Olympian, but he didn't pass up the opportunity when it was presented to him.
Sgt. Justin Olsen, a 2010, 2014 and 2018 U.S. Olympian bobsledder and 2010 Olympic gold medalist, couldn't resist the lure of competition and wound up taking on Baker and a handful of other students in a race from the basketball court to the mess hall.
"I lost," Baker said. "And he was just jogging."
But Baker nearly came in second to one student.
"I was like that close," said 12-year-old track runner Laila Rogers, using her hands to indicate about a foot of distance between the two at the end of the sprint. "I was proud of myself that I was that close."
Shariah Hart, 11, came in third.
"Keep trying over and over, even if you don't make it," Hart said of what she took away from the experience, before joining her team in a water balloon toss as the students resumed their own competition.
It was their last day at Camp L-Kee-Ta. Today is the last day of the summer program, and students will spend it canoeing and swimming at Big Hollow.