Why Kingsley Wilderness Project Deserves to Continue Helping Kids

By Kathie Hulley
Thursday, June 7, 2007

As part of its decision this year to eventually close eight secondary learning centers for special-education students, the Montgomery County school board also agreed to close the Kingsley Wilderness Project, a work-study program in the Clarksburg area for seriously disruptive and chronically truant high school students. There were 18 students enrolled at the school this year.

Twelve families have appealed to the Maryland State Board of Education to reverse the actions, arguing that the school board violated its own rules for how such decisions are to be made.

Kathie Hulley, president of the Clarksburg Civic Association, has lived in the area for 27 years and has been impressed by the work of the Kingsley program. Hulley, who is opposed to its closing, writes about its role in improving the lives of at-risk students. It was phased out in the budget for fiscal 2008.

In northern Montgomery County is an educational establishment that is not known to many but life-changing and revered by those who have passed through its doors. For the past 28 years, the Kingsley Wilderness Project has nurtured high school students who could not cope with regular school and who were disruptive or continually truant.

Before Kingsley, they were troubled teens. At Kingsley, they learned to find themselves through school work and outdoor activities in the afternoon. After Kingsley, they would return to their home schools with a changed outlook.

The Kingsley program allows the students to grow into young people who learn self-worth through the environment, in the process becoming sensitive to the needs of others as well as their own. It is believed that one of the greatest measures of Kingsley's long-term success is that only one former Kingsley student has been sent to jail.

Historically, more traditional school programs have not provided the environment necessary to nurture these wayward individuals in the manner Kingsley has. Kingsley has given them room and support to grow into productive citizens and nurtured the spirit of both the individual and the community along the way.

For Montgomery County, there is a particularly tangible benefit to the program: The school and students have been stewards of the Montgomery County land on which it stands, together with the historic Moneysworth Farm. It is operated through a cooperative venture with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Additionally, Kingsley students have contributed invaluable time and labor to improve Little Bennett Regional Park and Black Hill Park, as well as working on other local beautification projects.

Kingsley Project students learn to be self-sufficient by doing jobs such as janitorial services, and learn both personal responsibility and reliance upon others through team-based activities. Ex-students include owners of a coffee shop in Damascus, the owner of a towing business and a student of environmental law. These former students are now parents who have a greater understanding of youthful problems, and they work at jobs that bring in more tax revenue than might have been the case had they not found Kingsley as teens.

Until a few years ago, the waiting list for the program meant that the number of students desiring admission was double the number of available spots. However, the admission process was changed a few years ago, requiring referral by Montgomery County public schools. Since then, the numbers have dropped below capacity. The program is to be closed by MCPS "due to low enrollment and average scores below the 2.0 GPA required by the state of Maryland" (quoted from the reply from MCPS to my request for an explanation of the decision to close Kingsley).

The rationale for closure makes little sense except to those in the Montgomery County public school system, for whom test scores are paramount (to the exclusion of common sense). Of course, a center consisting of all low-achieving students will not show too well in the statistics.

The origin and purpose of the program must be pointed out and the results shown for what they really are -- truly outstanding. Students leave Kingsley more rounded and with a greater sense of their environment and the fragility of the eco-system than many students who have not faced the challenges of the average Kingsley student.

Montgomery County should be extremely proud of Kingsley and the results of this unique program. In finding themselves, Kingsley students have learned the value of education and good work and how to interact with other students and the community at large. If nothing is done to stay this closure, the memory of the program will be like the dust of the wasteland of the un-nurtured students and the land they will have to abandon.

The Montgomery County public school system is implacable in its refusal to reconsider the closure of Kingsley. Surely someone, somewhere will come forward with an idea of how to preserve this program for these fragile students.

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