BY STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON — The high-school years are tough on even the most focused kids. And yet they set the stage for so much of what happens later in life. Some kids manage to navigate the conventional pathways and graduate with a clear plan, while others seem never to find their groove.
Teachers Josh Hardt and Devon Karpak of Otter Valley Union High School (OV) have made it their mission to provide that latter group a path to success and fulfillment.
“Traditional education has become stale,” said Hardt in the cavernous basement classroom where he heads OV’s Moosalamoo program, now in its 18th year. Known affectionately at OV as “Moose,” the program incorporates outdoor, experiential learning with more conventional classroom academics.
“So many students are disenfranchised or even angry. They don’t know why they’re learning what they’re learning—left like that, they just drift away from school. This program tries to make education come alive,” said Hardt.
Hardt takes his students outdoors to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. “Students discover themselves. A lot of these kids don’t think they’re good at anything, but they discover that they actually have a lot to offer,” he said.
There’s a large expanse of woods behind the high school that the program cares for, teaching students the principles of ecology and biology. Additionally, Hardt leads the older students on off-campus expeditions once per semester. For example, he plans to take them to the Adirondacks this fall to go rock climbing. The students will learn not only about the sport but also about geology, behavioral psychology, and local history.
Students are expected to take what they’ve learned in the field and present it to people outside the program. “I let them figure out how they’re going to do it. At first, they may be a little unsure because they’re used to rigid formality in school. But they quickly step up and become creative and impassioned. It’s magic. It’s why I do this,” said Hardt.
The future of the Moosalamoo program was uncertain when Hardt had a stroke last year. Though he’s fully recovered, he realizes that it’s important to think about passing the torch to other teachers for the long-term survival of the program. “I hope OV feels that Moose is here for the long haul. That would entail finding someone else to continue beyond me.”
In the classroom next to Hardt, you’ll find Devon Karpak, who heads up Tech Ed at OV. Woodworking, electrical, welding, engines—all the various facets of what was often called “shop class” back in the day.
But unlike the stereotypical gruff, grizzled shop teachers of yore, Karpak is young, bookish, and eager to innovate. “The joy of learning is going deeply into the intersection of different subjects. I want to show kids that it’s all interrelated. Math, science, and writing all coexist in an ecosystem.”
Karpak has been extremely successful at bringing in funding during his five years at OV. This year, he received a $100,000 fellowship from the Rowland Foundation to help build the tech ed program. He also received a $14,000 “Light a Spark” grant from the American Welding Society. While many districts around the country are cutting back on tech ed, Karpak is expanding and bolstering OV’s offerings.
“We’re not trying to compete with the vocational schools. We want to give students a taste of what’s available there before they make the decision to go. Maybe they take a class here and realize it’s not for them. Maybe they decide it’s exactly what they want. We lean into kids’ passions and try weird things. They should have the option to explore,” he said.
Karpak also expressed concern that there aren’t clear pathways to careers in the trades, despite vocal support from Governor Scott in recent months. “If you want to become X, you need to do Y. We need to tell teenagers what they can do. I worry that if the money [that Scott is promising] isn’t used well, there won’t be another infusion. I want to see a plan,” he said.
Both Hardt and Karpak have received positive feedback from their students’ parents. “It’s been overwhelming,” said Hardt. “Parents tell me all the time how much the program means to their kids. Some of these kids start out feeling like less than nothing and find a purpose and confidence.”
“I once had to drop something off for a student at his house,” said Karpak. “I ended up talking to his parents for half an hour. They were so happy that he was finally excited by school.”
“There definitely used to be a stigma attached to Moose,” said Hardt. “People looked at it like it was for kids who couldn’t cut it academically. That’s changing. I get all kinds of kids in here now.”
“Any kid can find something to be passionate about in these programs,” said Karpak. “We can capture their imagination and show them what’s possible.”