What was once an unattractive concrete slab parking lot has recently been transformed into a haven for students at Colorado Early Colleges Colorado Springs, a charter school within the Colorado Springs public school system.

A year ago a task force comprised of student council members, teachers, administrators and community leaders was formed to address a statewide trend of growing mental health and substance abuse concerns. The group focused on creating a welcoming outdoor space at CECCS where students could relax, re-group, burn off energy and manage negative emotions.

The Summit Courtyard for Health and Wellness opened Oct. 8, and immediately students embraced this special oasis to help them restore balance and recharge located just steps outside of the school’s classrooms. During a recent visit; laughter, quiet conversations, excited voices, and birdsong could be heard in this sea of green as the trees and plantings swayed in the gentle breezes. Groups gathered in both the sunshine and shade to lounge among the ample boulder seating.

“We are an early college program so we want this place to have a college feel. The space is functional, welcoming, purposeful, vibrant, and beautiful. There is joy here. Students are excited to have it,” said Head of School Jennifer Daugherty.

The courtyard, designed and constructed by Fort Collins firm Neenan Archistruction, is divided into three “Base Camps” — each with a distinct purpose. “Base Camp 1” encourages physical movement with a basketball court and Gaga ball pit. Students can work off excess energy while enjoying friendly competition or just a bit of fun. “Base Camp 2” includes quiet, contemplative spaces where students can simply relax alone or in small groups. Plans are in the works for meetings, classes, and physical fitness gatherings such as yoga to be held in the calm outdoor venue. “Base Camp 3” includes workspace for individual and collaborative projects among the soothing landscaped grounds.

Students can relax in hammocks interspersed under shade trees. There’s also a creative walking path — a series of decorative walkways embedded in patio areas surrounding the courtyard. With the guidance of teachers and counselors, students can use the path to discover ways to manage negative emotions, meditate, and use mindfulness techniques as they calm themselves through the simple act of walking.

Daugherty said there are mental-health advantages associated with the courtyard: “Our counselors are working with high-needs students. We must be intentional with teaching students these strategies and how to practice the strategies.”

Student Council president Jade Li, a senior who has attended CECCS since freshman year, said students at the school have the advantage of earning a combination of high school and college credits while pursuing both a high school diploma, and a more advanced degree. Li said the school provides “…the opportunity to be the best version of yourself. …This school is a place of opportunity. While the school puts in initiative to work with you, you in turn must put in the initiative and ambition to make your dreams come true. It’s a privilege to attend here.”

CECCS offers its diverse population of students a strong sense of community. When students are ready for college classes, they can earn cost-free college credits both in-house and off-campus at Pikes Peak Community College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado State University-Pueblo, and via online courses offered through Aims Community College.

Li notes that her teachers have a high level of availability, and seem to genuinely want their students to succeed.

There is a healthy environment of students and teachers working together to form a strong partnership for learning. Class size is typically no more than 24 students. A Supplemental Instruction studio is available during free time.

Freshman Ayanna Dodd was encouraged to attend CECCS by friends who are now her fellow students. Dodds said CECCS affords her opportunity to meet her goals in a supportive environment, and she appreciates knowing that students can always ask teachers for extra help. She is excited to have the opportunity to earn credits toward an associate’s degree, and her long-term goal is psychiatric nursing.

The Summit Courtyard is now part of that supportive environment and enhances opportunities for students to simply take a needed break, find ways to cope with stress, work off some energy, find camaraderie, or just chill in a beautiful space.

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