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Sauk Prairie Middle School Principal Ted Harter said it is important for students to start off the school year with a different perspective of their peers. Middle school is a time when students from the different elementary schools around the district all find themselves under the same roof for the first time. It’s also a time when those students are figuring out who they are in the larger community. At the beginning of each school year, students in each grade level partake in team-building learning experiences outside the classroom.

“It’s related to social-emotional learning,” Harter said. “It’s also about character-building and developing a growth mindset.”

Middle school counselor Mindy Breunig said it is important for the kids to work on building a positive community.

“It allows the students to see one another in a different way and learn to work together,” Breunig said. “They are encouraged to share things about themselves in a non-threatening environment.”

In sixth grade, students go to Bethel Horizons which provides them with a day of team-building challenges, a high-ropes course and science education. The school’s two, 100-student teams experience positive risk taking, how to overcome challenges and learn to communicate and collaborate to problem solve.

Sauk Prairie Middle School sixth grade teacher Mary Bittendorf said the students learn about and follow the acronym RISE, which stands for respect, inclusion, support and empathy. While attending Bethel Horizons, Bittendorf said the students learn this through a series of environmental activities and an adventure course where students have to work together to solve problems.

“They are taught how to listen to another person’s ideas and it is encouraged that everyone has a voice,” Bittendorf said. “And then they are given positive feedback.”

In seventh grade, students participate in the Courage Retreat, put on by an organization called Youth Frontiers. Staff from the group holds a full-day retreat for the students at the high school gym, along with middle school staff, coaches and administrators.

“What we like about the courage retreat is that it’ universal,” Breunig said. “Everyone is getting the same message. The goal isn’t different, but the delivery might be different.”

Although it isn’t far, Harter said getting them into a different space is important, and the students get an experience at the high school.

“It’s a full-day of high-energy team building, team challenges and fun mixed with really powerful stories of making positive choices,” Harter said. “The kids hear first-hand what it means to be good to one another, respect each other’s ideas. We want it to be a safe place for kids to have the courage to be themselves and do what’s right regardless of what the crowd is saying.”

“It’s hard not following the group,” Sauk Prairie Middle School guidance counselor Jane Busler said. “The kids get a chance to learn what the best choice is for themselves.”

Harter said the retreat is funded by the middle school’s parent group, Middle School Connections. “They have a choice each year whether or not they want to fund this,” Harter said. “Each year they come back and say they keep funding it because of the positive experience it gives everyone.”

The eighth graders are split by gender and attend Expeditions in Baraboo on different days. “Kids experience challenges they have never had before,” Harter said. “It gets them out of their comfort zone. And the staff does an amazing job at encouraging the kids to help and support one another and to communicate positively.”

While at Expeditions, students break into smaller groups and do activities such as archery and canoeing on Devil’s Lake. Students can bring tackle and poles and fish while at the lake.

“That’s an activity you don’t get to see at school,” Harter said. “You get two kids who might avoid one another during the school year, but standing next to each other fishing they might make a connection.”

Follow Autumn Luedke on Twitter @Apwriter1 or contact at (608) 393-5777

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Sauk Prairie Eagle reporter