PRYOR—Armed with about $8,000 in grant money and a box of donated climbing harnesses and shoes, Pryor teacher Loren Rausch set out last year to share one of his life’s passions with his students at Plenty Coups High School.
Rausch, a second-year science teacher at the school, has long been a rock-climbing aficionado, climbing in Alaska and Nepal between finishing his undergraduate degree and starting his job in Pryor. So, during his first year at Plenty Coups, which is located on the Crow Reservation, Rausch started ordering parts to build a 22-foot climbing wall in the school’s gymnasium.
Most of the materials were purchased using a tiny portion of a state-funded school improvement grant Plenty Coups received. And over the last year, shop teacher Rod Richard spent more than 200 hours drilling holes, painting plywood, and, finally, adding ropes.
The wall debuted in October for students, complete with four color-coded routes and the phrase “climbing to higher education” written across its face. So far, the wall has accomplished more than Rausch, a 33-year-old from Shepherd, ever imagined. It has provided students at this struggling school with not just a new hobby, but impromptu science lessons, a reason to come to school and a deeper connection to him and to each other.
Rausch leads an informal climbing club, which draws varying numbers of students to the wall in the morning, during lunch and after school. At the tiny Plenty Coups, which enrolls just a few dozen students, the wall provides students with another indoor recreational option apart from the ever-popular basketball.
Rausch is also integrating the new activity into his science classes to make sure his students learn core academic skills from the wall. Even before it went up, students learned about ice formation and geology during a field trip to the Beartooth Mountains.
While ice climbing, they also discovered—firsthand—how the human body responds to the cold. When a climber has her hands above her heart, the blood stops flowing to the extremities, Rausch explained. When it starts again, she experiences a few seconds of intense, aching pain. “That feeling of wanting to throw up,” Rausch told them, “it’s actually your muscles’ physiological response to gravity and the cold.” He added that climbers have another name for it: “the screaming barfies.”
Once the wall was up, Rausch asked seventh- and eighth-graders to determine their “ape index” by measuring arm spans relative to their height—teaching them some math and physics in the process. Some climbers believe that a positive ape index (that is, longer arm span than height), can be a competitive advantage.
The day of that lesson, Rausch’s students raced, harnesses in hand, to the gym at lunch to put their ape indices to the test. Seventh-grader Lailanee Beaumont was thrilled to discover that she had a longer wingspan than height, and said she thought it might give her an edge over her classmates.
Next year, Rausch also hopes to lead a chemistry class through the process of making their own “holds”—the lumpy-looking grips climbers grab as they go up a wall.
“These could be the only science classes some of them ever have,” he says, noting that some students might not continue on to college despite the school’s best efforts and intentions.
Dan McGee, the school district superintendent, has an office across the hall from the gymnasium, where he’s watched as students learn to climb and support each other. He says the activity can boost self-esteem—an attribute that makes students stronger and more disciplined in all aspects of their lives.
At a school that in 2012 had the third-worst graduation rate in the state, the towering wall serves as a giant symbol of potential and ambition. The state grant that funded the wall brought just under $1.5 million to Pryor Public Schools between 2011 and 2014. The money has been used to pay for new math and reading curricula in the classrooms and magazines in the library, among other things.
Though teachers know there’s still room for improvement, the school has been transforming in ways both big and small. Senior students say cutting class used to be the norm, but over the past three years teachers have become stricter about enforcing attendance and making sure homework gets done.
McGee credits these changes to grant-funded resources and a new teacher evaluation system that requires teachers to set more detailed goals for student growth and achievement. Last year, for the first time in years, all of Plenty Coups’ seniors graduated.
The climbing club has also helped Rausch build deeper relationships with students, relationships he hopes will play a small role in boosting the school’s graduation rate over time. He’s learning that the trust he earns belaying (holding the ropes for climbers and helping keeping them secure) tends to follow him back into the classroom.
And the students are coming to trust one another more as well. They hook each other into harnesses, for instance, and the older, more experienced students have tried their hand at belaying.
Now that the wall is up, Rausch hopes to take the club outside the school’s walls. He’s planning a trip to a climbing gym in Billings and dreaming of future trips—to the limestone stretches of the Pryor Mountains, or maybe even farther afield to Utah or Europe. Inter-school competitions could also be a possibility if Plenty Coups links up with Touch the Sky, a nonprofit in Bozeman that runs youth climbing programs.
Rock-climbing was completely new in October for seventh-grader Cecelia Stewart, who watched the construction of the wall over several months but didn’t know what it was. She learned to climb in seconds.
Her classmate, Lailanee, first climbed at the Calgary Stampede during a trip with her grandfather a year and a half ago. The sport has widened her horizons and broadened her ambitions. Someday, she hopes to climb all over the world, including Mount Everest.
Lailanee’s fastest time up and down the wall is about 15 seconds, an unofficial club record, she says. But it’s not the speed that keeps her coming back—it’s the heights.
“Being able to go up high, it’s an exhilarating feeling,” she says. It’s “like you can fly.”
Madeleine Cummings is a fellow for The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering the issues facing America’s teachers.