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Frank Gray

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School helps minds grow by cutting down trees

At the Crossing Educational Center, a faith-based alternative school on South Calhoun Street next to South Side High School, the philosophy is to help students become contributing members of society, school officials say.

But exactly how is a handful of high school students supposed to contribute?

Well, the emerald ash borer seems to have provided an answer to that question.

Today and Friday, the school’s students, working with NeighborLink, will be taking down dead trees on a smattering of city residents’ properties.

Oddly enough, it’s a perfect fit for the little school, one of 15 related alternative schools scattered around northern Indiana.

The story of the Crossing is an interesting one. The school’s founder, Rob Staley, used to be a Lutheran high school principal, and one of the distasteful sides of that job was periodically having to suspend students.

Then one day, Staley toured the jail and found it was full of students he had suspended.

Just look at the numbers, said Kurt Jaderholm, a spokesman for the school. Each year, 24,000 kids in Indiana fail to graduate from high school. Those who don’t graduate are eight times as likely to end up in jail or prison as those who do graduate, he said, and that’s an expensive proposition. It costs $70,000 to keep a man in prison for a year, but only $6,000 to educate a student, he said.

That’s when Staley got the idea for an alternative school that emphasized academics, job training and mentoring.

But before any of this happened, before Staley ever grew up, his father had run a tree-trimming business.

So the school, which started in Elkhart, established its own microbusiness, trimming trees and turning the leftovers into sellable products ranging from lumber to pallets.

The school has developed what it calls an Xtreme Team made up of staff and students who tackle the trees. They are experienced in handling chain saws, chippers and other equipment, and they will be on hand today and Friday to handle the tree removals. The students at the Fort Wayne branch will be doing what Jaderholm described as grunt work, hauling logs and stuff like that.

It’s a perfect answer to a not-so-hypothetical question posed by Jaderholm: What do you do when an aging grandmother on a fixed income has a dead tree in her yard threatening to fall on her house, and she can’t get insurance because of the hazard, and she can’t afford to hire someone to remove it?

The project also fits in well with the school’s other activities, which involve working with the city and helping with periodic river cleanups.

“It’s good to see good things happening,” Jaderholm said. “We are making things happen.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.