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Katie Zanto - Adventure Risk Challenge, Truckee, CA

An innovative educator who blends the outdoors with literacy training

Fueled by a great dedication to the environment and education, Katie Zanto founded Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC), an innovative program that integrates wilderness challenges with literacy and leadership curriculum, and raises the aspirations of California high school students to think beyond graduation. ARC has helped hundreds of teens from immigrant families improve their reading and writing skills and experience the outdoors for the first time.

With a Masters degree from Stanford University in Curriculum Development and over 10 years' experience as an Outward Bound instructor, Katie saw a unique opportunity to link literacy development with outdoor experiences for high school students whose second language was English. Many of these students had never experienced hiking, camping or even riding a bike in the outdoors. Katie believed that the confidence that outdoor challenges offer would provide fertile ground for furthering a student's literacy education.

And her belief has paid off. Seven years since its start, ARC summer program participants have achieved a 92% passing level of the High School Exit Exam (compared to 81% in the rest of the district) and college enrollment is at 77% (compared to 66% of Latinos nationwide). The majority of ARC students who attend college are often the first in their families to do so. "Though it sounds cliché, this program changes lives," says Jennifer Gurecki, Director of ARC. "Our students come in thinking that college isn't even in their future - and when they leave they're on the path for it."

Thanks to Katie and the team at ARC, teens have access to programs like a 40-day summer course and weekend retreats that combine English curriculum, journaling, public speaking and poetry with backpacking, kayaking and rafting. "Some of these kids and their families had zero experience with nature, so it was a scary thought to both the kids and their parents," explains Katie.

"Katie has the ability to say, 'Let's do this' and it pushes everyone around her to raise the bar and go beyond where we'd normally stop on our own," says Suzanne Lippuner, who serves on the advisory council for ARC.

Katie's passion for using the wilderness as an alternative learning environment gives area teens the confidence to strive for more. "At the end of one of our first outings, one of the students told us that being outdoors helped her find out who she really was," says Jennifer. "When we talk about the impact Katie has had, she inspires them to recognize their potential."

To find our more information about Adventure Risk Challenge, visit arcprogram.org.