The winding road toward a fresh start

Students at the Gateway School get their hands dirty and find their spirits lifted as they build a labyrinth


THE STUDENTS AT THE GATEWAY SCHOOL IN WESTMINSTER — Teens discover new paths Two pyramidal heaps of stone at the entrance mark the start of the winding pathway. They also mark fresh beginnings for the students who have toiled for weeks in the dirt and mulch.

The students at the Gateway School in Westminster - an alternative school for middle- and high-school students serving extended suspensions or struggling with learning disabilities or behavioral and emotional problems - acknowledge that at first they whined about having to get their hands and shoes dirty.

But as they admired their handiwork on a recent day, it was clear that their perspective has evolved as they've transformed an open patch of field on their school's campus into a labyrinth.

"In the beginning, we were like, `We don't want to work with shovels,'" said Miranda Cox, 16. "But now it's like, `Look at what we've done. We've made something beautiful.'"

The labyrinth, which is about 110 feet in diameter, is part environmental project, part therapy.

Along the pathway, twiggy trees destined to be 50-foot-tall red oaks, as well as red maples and dogwoods, are planted. Among the 250 native plants and trees, visitors can also spot a berry patch, wild flowers, American holly, white pine and winterberry. The students have plans to create a butterfly garden, and the woodshop class has offered to build a gazebo for the labyrinth's inner circle.

Because the maze is situated just above a stream along the property line, near Route 97, it will help alleviate the campus' soil erosion problem, said Lyndsay Pyles, who teaches experiential education at the school.

But the driving motivation for the labyrinth was to give the students a place to contemplate, to seek solace or to unwind. In the inner circle, they can sit at a bench and table - handmade by the woodshop class - to get away from some of the pressures they face.

Pyles, who also teaches the students yoga, has told them that if they search within themselves as they slowly walk the labyrinth, they should come out of it feeling prepared to tackle their problems.

"Many of our high-stress kids have walked it without even knowing its purpose and have come out of it and told me how relaxing it is," she said.

Pyles said she helped the students develop the idea when they were brainstorming hands-on projects they could do.

The students ran with the idea, she said.

Starting last spring, they began writing letters seeking donations of trees from the state Department of Natural Resources, expertise and help tilling the land from the Hashawha Environmental Center, and supplies from businesses such as Lowe's and Ben's Meadow Co.

They also joined forces with pupils from neighboring Robert Moton Elementary to apply for a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to raise money for supplies to construct the labyrinth.

The students at Gateway said they were heartened to see the outpouring of community support for their efforts.

"That said to us that at least someone believes in us," said Matt Norvell, 15, as he stood along the maze's mulch-covered outer ring. "People are willing to invest in us."

Grant Cress, 17, spent about a week at the beginning of this school year during class and in the evenings at home designing the labyrinth with pencil and paper. Because he didn't have graphing paper large enough to accommodate such a big project, he had to create his own by plotting out dots that would help him make a more precise layout.

"I really got into the drawing," he said. "I had a general picture of what it should look like, but I had to make it precise by measuring in feet, doing the math, and [factoring in] symmetry."

Although Pyles' class led the project, all of the school's students shared in the work. In addition to help from the woodshop students, other classes came out on varying schedules to help mulch the path or to help plant trees.

For many of the students, the project has instilled a renewed sense of purpose.

"We want people to recognize that we're trying to change and improve our behavior," Miranda said. "This is one little step we're taking to succeed."

Matt added that he hopes the beauty - and usefulness - of the labyrinth will help people see that Gateway students have much to offer the community.

"They say this school is for bad kids, but why would bad kids do this?" Matt said. "We're not bad kids - we're good kids."

With the labyrinth finally taking shape, Miranda and her classmates marvel over the thought that they have made a lasting contribution to the school, an accomplishment many of them hadn't envisioned.

"When we come back in a couple years and see trees and how much this has all grown, I'll be able to say that I was a part of that," Miranda said. "That's going to make me feel really good."

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