School Officials Left Dangling On The Ropes

Administrators conquer fear and learn lessons atop a 40-foot pole


Payson High School Assistant Principal Anna VanZile and Superintendent Casey O’Brien cross each other as they attempt to traverse the high wire cable during their training on the Project Adventure rope course. See story on page 7A.

Payson High School Assistant Principal Anna VanZile and Superintendent Casey O’Brien cross each other as they attempt to traverse the high wire cable during their training on the Project Adventure rope course. See story on page 7A. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Jeez. Running a school district is such a high wire act. Literally.

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien and a slew of the district’s top administrators spent a couple of hours this week balancing precariously on wires far above the ground, climbing telephone poles and dangling from ropes — all in the name of team building.

The afternoon included hooking up to safety harnesses, climbing a 40-foot-tall pole, standing unsteadily atop the pole and then jumping into space to smack a big plastic ball in mid air, trusting that the people on the ground hanging onto the ends of the safety ropes would keep them safe.

A former Navy fighter pilot, Casey said “Samuel Johnson observed that nothing so sharply focuses the mind as the though you’re about to be hanged. It’s a moment of intense focus: you’re not thinking about anyone else. You’re up in the air on the end of a telephone pole and trying not to fall. Was it exhilarating? Yes. Was it fulfilling to accomplish it? Yes. Can I see how we can use this to encourage kids to take certain steps outside their comfort zone? That confidence-building I can see as real.”

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Learning to balance in a cooperative manner working as a group to solve problems, as these administration staff discovered, may be more challenging than first anticipated.

Payson High School Vice Principal Anna VanZile also climbed the unnervingly slender pole, confiding to no one the fear of heights that had grown in her since childhood, when she used to climb to foolish heights in neighborhood trees for a glimpse of distant vistas.

“Since I became an adult, I realized that climbing high enough to see the top of a skyscraper 40 miles away wasn’t something someone with responsibilities should do,” she said.

But with all the principals and top administrators in the district snugged into climbing harnesses standing by and calling encouragement, she climbed the towering pole. She hesitated at the very top, gathering her nerve to stand on a pole top no larger than a dinner plate, with nothing but air on every side. Then she shifted her attention to the big white ball dangling in mid air and launched herself into space.

“It goes back to the choices you make,” she said later. She found herself reflecting also on an on-campus speech given by former Phoenix Police Officer Jason Schechterle, terribly burned in his police car, who told students that 10 percent of life lies in what happens to you, 90 percent in your attitude about what happens. The officer said he spent his whole life fearing fire, then found himself challenged and transformed by those flames.

The terms of the federal grant required the district’s top administrators to undergo the safety training and experiment with the confidence and team building lessons the system of poles, zip lines and climbing stations offers.

O’Brien said, “we all started out thinking ‘OK, but we’re very busy.’ By the end of the day, to a person, everybody left feeling: ‘If done well, this could be a very powerful program.’”

The superintendent said he was especially excited by the elements in the program that would teach students how to cooperate and rely on one another. For instance, at one point the 14 administrators balanced atop a wobbly platform that required them to cooperatively space themselves out around the platform to keep it perfectly balanced, without tilting to one side.

“What I like so much about it: if we’re going to compete against China — we’re not going to out test them. They have more gifted kids than we’ve got kids: but we may be able to out innovate them” if schools can foster risk taking, problem solving and team building.

The district just finished installing the $200,000 adventure rope course as part of a three-year, $1.4 million federal grant to bolster its physical education program.

Currently, students must take a least one year of physical education in middle school and another year in high school. Some students take more. Those physical education classes can now use the adventure rope course.

Classes that use the course will undergo sessions focusing on safety, technique, team building and other skills before snapping on the elaborate safety system and climbing up onto the wires and ropes.

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Hanging on tight, Anna VanZile began her journey across the high wire cable.

The district’s physical education teachers have already completed extended training courses, which continue this week.

VanZile said overcoming her deepening fear of heights proved both exhilarating and illuminating. She said the adventure course revolves around “challenge by choice,” which means students won’t be pressured to climb higher than they’re willing — or try exercises for which they’re not ready.

However, she predicts the experience will prove transformative for students able to confront and surmount the limits they’ve accepted.

“It goes back to ‘challenge by choice’ and the choices we make.”

Moreover, the course offers powerful opportunities to learn about trust and cooperation, she said — citing the intricate balancing effort on the wobbly platform requiring the cooperation of the whole team.

“We had to keep it balanced for 20 seconds, so we really had to come up with a solution. And then we talked afterwards to reflect on the lessons learned.”

O’Brien said the day held one pleasant surprise: He could still get his heart pumping without necessarily landing a jet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

“I think the biggest surprise of the day, at my age, was to have that shot of adrenaline and then accomplishment. Not that it was such a difficult task, but that it made that much of an impression. And then the camaraderie with everyone else: it was very reinforcing.”

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