Students skip class for respect

Published 7:40 am Friday, March 12, 2010

Ninth-graders from Austin and Southland high schools were allowed to skip class Thursday.

However, the students at both schools were to spend the day learning.

The ninth-graders came together Thursday off-campus at St. Olaf Lutheran Church to attend a day-long Youth Frontier Respect Retreat. The gathering brought the teens together to encourage camaraderie, communication and respect.

“It’s just an awesome day,” said Thor Bergland, student support liaison for Austin High School. “It’s fun and energetic — but at the same time it’s serious and it’s about respect.”

The respect retreat, which has been held in Austin for three years, is part two of a two-retreat series available to Austin and Southland eighth- and ninth-graders. Eighth graders attended a similar courage retreat in mid-December.

Presenters from the Minneapolis-based non-profit group Youth Frontiers lead the retreats — thanks to a grant attained by the Austin Southland Integration Committee.

The aims of the program, Bergland explained, include easing the transition from eight to ninth grade, teaching the values of diversity and integration and promoting high student achievement

Enter Jamie Zuel and fellow Youth Frontiers staffers.

The basic goal of Thursday’s retreat, he said, is to teach kids to treat themselves and each other better.

To that end, the students took part in high energy, large group games as well as small group discussions. They listened to speeches and had a chance to take the podium themselves. At the end of the day, they would be asked to make pledges to respect themselves and one another.

“Eighty percent of the students in here probably like themselves OK,” Zuel said. “But they might see negative things happening sometimes, and not step up. We want to show them what a difference it would make for everybody if they always stood up for what was right.”

Paige Goetz and Janna Akkerman, AHS students, said they were having great mornings.

“It’s definitely a fun learning experience. It opens up your mind,” Goetz said.

Her classmate, Kathryn Alan, agreed. “It gives you a day to reflect on yourself. And, Deb and Zuel [the retreat leaders] are really cool.”

Alan and Goetz will have a chance to return to the Youth Frontiers retreats in a couple years as junior and senior leaders.

“Being able to volunteer as a leader has been a great experience for the older students. They get to come back and see the retreat from another side, and help their younger peers,” Bergland said.

Youth Frontiers is a non-partisan, non-profit group. It specializes in facilitating retreats and presentations for students, teachers and parents nationwide. This past year, the organization delivered 664 retreats in 15 states.

For more information about Youth Frontiers, go to