Focus, Higher Education, and Sports Business

Students embrace classrooms without walls

Forest Hills Eastern class connects with board sports firms across U.S.

February 6, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Gone Boarding
Forest Hills Eastern students on a “field trip” to Burton Snowboards. Courtesy Bill Curtis

Snowboarding has changed the way Forest Hills Public Schools looks at education.

The program Gone Boarding started as a pipe dream for Forest Hills Eastern High School teachers Bill Curtis and Bruce Macartney. The pair teach physical education and industrial arts, respectively, and needed a way to keep students interested in electives.

Following a survey of students, the teachers found board sports were growing in popularity. Curtis is a fan of action sports and liked the idea of keeping the students active, and Macartney wanted to expand the design-and-build process in his industrial arts classes beyond the standard pencil boxes and birdhouses.

“We dreamed this whole thing up,” said Curtis, who’s 37 and in his 12th year of teaching. “From the get-go, the administration was totally supportive, and that’s unique.”

Instead of facing an administration that questioned the validity of bringing board sports into the classroom or that said the funds weren’t there for it, administrators told the teachers to focus on developing the class and they’d take care of any roadblocks.

Forest Hills Eastern Principal Steve Harvey said the two teachers were coming up with all the reasons they might not be able do it. He said, “Let me worry about those.”

“We try to be supportive of teachers thinking outside of the box, not only at the school level but the district level,” Harvey said. “Sometimes we can be; other times, because of restrictions, we can’t be. We try to improve student engagement and learning.”

Curtis said following the initial meetings with the administration, it was time to innovate and dream. Now, it’s turned into something beyond what he ever imagined it could be.

Gone Boarding started as a joint physical education and industrial arts class that kept students occupied during a two-hour block — now held at the end of the day. Some days, the kids are in the shop designing and building skateboards, snowboards and surfboards.

Working in groups, every student can come away with a skateboard, which takes a “few days” to make. Each group also makes a surfboard and a snowboard, a longer process that takes several weeks each to finish.

Curtis said it gives students a chance to pair up with someone who wants the other type of board than what they want — and then trust each other to finish their projects.

Each board is made by hand. “If you come into the shop, it’s like a snowstorm,” Curtis said. “They get the full experience. Because we do everything in that craftsman style, there’s more of an appreciation.”

The rest of the class — approximately 20 students — heads to various outdoor locations to learn their sports. They paddle board on area lakes and rivers, surf on Lake Michigan in the fall and snowboard at Cannonsburg Ski Area.

As the program evolved, Curtis said they started to realize more of the state’s education standards could be met.

“What we’re hoping to do is to be able to allow kids to choose a Gone Boarding class and for them to potentially receive a math or science credit because of all the things involved,” Curtis said.

The class is witnessing a lot of business and marketing involvement, as well. It started with Curtis asking action sports companies for support in the way of products. Then, student Burton DeYoung had a conversation with his uncle, Matt Hoffman, a sales representative for Burton Snowboards.

Last year, the class went on a field trip to Burton’s Chicago showroom and Hoffman showed them the process Burton follows start to finish. Then he suggested the students should visit the company’s headquarters in Burlington, Vt.

In the fall, Curtis took 11 students to Vermont to meet with Jeff Boliba, a Burton vice president, and tour the facilities for two days.

“I think he thought it would be a meet-and-greet and show them what he did on a daily basis,” Curtis said. “But after he made his presentation, the students gave theirs, and he was a little taken back by what we’re actually doing as a class.”

Following the presentation, senior Michael Bova — who hopes to attend the University of Vermont — handed Boliba the résumé he had prepared with help from the high school’s business teacher. Now, Bova is taking the lead in continuing the program’s relationship with Burton, which includes bringing Boliba to Grand Rapids this month.

Curtis hopes Bova will go to college in Vermont and intern at Burton.

“That’s his dream — to work at Burton,” Curtis said. “He’ll have such a leg up and he’s already developing those relationships from the inside. To be able to place a kid on a track for his dream job, that’s really rewarding.”

Last month, Curtis spent a week in California meeting with other action sports companies — including Oakley — in an effort to form more relationships. He said some plans are in the works, but he couldn’t reveal them yet.

Most students won’t get to live their childhood dream of being a professional boarder or athlete, Curtis said, but a visit to a place such as Burton shows students there are a lot of other ways to be involved in something they love — whether it is engineering, craftsmanship, finance, human resources or public relations.

“It’d be cool to develop those relationships with the companies so we can place students into internships and have these avenues for kids,” he said. “Ultimately, they’ll determine where they end up, but we can provide them with the opportunities.”

Students from last fall’s class now will head to Forest Hills Eastern’s two feeder elementary schools where they will teach students in kindergarten through second grade how to snowboard.

Next year, the plan is for Curtis to travel to the two other Forest Hills high schools, Northern and Central, to teach a Gone Boarding class while collaborating with the three industrial arts teachers there.

He said it would be nice to see the idea of a Gone Boarding program spread coast-to-coast, but he knows a project of this magnitude might not be scalable for everyone.

“You can’t force people’s passions onto everybody,” he said. “But there is a lot of synergy that’s building. There’s so much that can be done to just get kids stoked about being active.”

Embracing programs like Gone Boarding can help students become more engaged in their schooling, Curtis said.

“That might be where we’re going educationally in the future,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘Here are all the courses you have to take,’ how cool would it be if there are a bunch of ‘elective’ type courses that fit kids’ interests and, within those courses, are embedded the standards they need to meet?”

Harvey said he hopes the program’s success will continue to extend learning beyond the four walls of a classroom as other teachers bring ideas to the district. He said the school has a talented and innovative staff and a supportive administration that wants to help students become healthy and productive members of society.

“Education doesn’t have to be confined to a classroom,” he said. “The classroom teacher will never be obsolete, but education is changing and what we can offer kids is changing.”

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