The Balarat program provides students across Colorado with an experience they will never forget.
After three years of not utilizing high school leaders, the Balarat program is back and available for students to volunteer. Officially starting in 1975, the 750 acre outdoor classroom located just north of Boulder, Colorado, is owned by Denver Public Schools. The two-day trip is offered to fifth grade students throughout DPS. They also offer a day trip for third graders to explore the campus and activities of Balarat.
The program is primarily an outdoor experience. Students get the opportunity to investigate the mountains around them, which is something that quite a few children have never experienced before. For many students, the Balarat trip is their first time sleeping away from their home and parents as well as their first time up to the mountains. Young kids’ emotions can be across the board; anywhere from excited to nervous to simply homesick. Balarat has a wide variety of activities such as hiking and investigating different objects naive to the land, ensuring that students and teachers stay engaged.
The most famous part of the Balarat experience is the night walk. The night walk is slightly more complex than the name makes it sound. After dinner when it’s dark outside, students bundle up and prepare to take an eight to ten minute walk down a path in complete darkness as a class and then walk back to the lodges alone. No lights or talking is allowed throughout the duration of the walk, which allows students to have time to themselves to evaluate their day and more times than not, have this once in a lifetime experience. In the city, the light and sound pollution take over the beauty of the night sky. At the Balarat campus, stars can be seen for miles on a clear night.
The high school Balarat program, taken as a class each semester, gives students the opportunity to be a leader. Being a leader to the fifth grade students also comes with being a role model to them. At such a young age, the kids look up to people older than them and often follow their lead. Counselor Jillian Gleason, Thomas Jefferson’s Balarat organizer says, “It’s so much more fun for 5th graders to have older peers be their leaders. A lot of times our high school leaders have experienced Balarat themselves when they were fifth graders.” Patience, energy, and enthusiasm are major qualities that a high school leader should possess.
Senior Charlotte Connor says the most rewarding part is hearing the children talk about “how much fun they had, how much they enjoyed you as a teacher, and how impactful we were on these children.” High school students receive five credit hours or community service credits. A required two day overnight training camp for the high schoolers prepares them for the activities they will be assisting with the fifth grade trips. Followed by the training camp, students sign up for three of the two day overnight trips to complete throughout the semester. During their trips, students live and supervise the 5th graders in the dorms, assist and teach activities with the Balarat teachers, and help set up and clean.
Balarat is unlike any other field trip taken during elementary school. It is a great outlet for kids to connect with nature, be in the moment, and not have to worry about anything else. Many people who get the privilege of going on the Balarat trip remember it going into adulthood and this program has provided many kids with an experience that they are likely to treasure in the future.