Souhegan High School’s ‘Saber Startup’ program promotes confidence and camaraderie

By Sarah Earle

High above their friends’ heads, Brady Bertrand and Balthazar Glover inched their way up parallel boards studded with metal loops, toward a huge tire suspended between two pine trees. Brady, the smaller of the two, was the first to swing his body up onto a horizontal board that joins the two vertical boards. Then he slipped up inside the tire and popped out the top, victorious. 

“This is amazing!” he shouted before coaching Balthazar up into the nest. 

It’s a scene that plays out every August in the woods behind Souhegan High School, but this year it felt especially poignant. After a rocky 18 months marked by online learning, careful protocols, and stifled social lives, these soon-to-be high schoolers were taking risks, facing fears, and building trust at “Saber Startup,” a unique orientation program for incoming freshmen. It’s one of many ways educators around the state are addressing the social-emotional impact of the pandemic as students return to school.

“We have kids here who haven’t been in school since March 2020,” said Sheelu Flegal, the school social worker and advisory coordinator. “That anticipatory anxiety about coming back in is so tough.”

Flegal started the program with grant funds in 2014. Normally, participation in the three-day program is limited to students who are new to the district or who have been identified by the middle school as needing some support with the transition to high school. 

Souhegan High School Wellness teacher John Dowd holds a rope ladder stable while Balthazer Glover (left) and Brady Bertrand climb to the top. Dowd’s ropes course is a rite of passage at Souhegan High School and part of the school’s “Saber Startup” orientation program for incoming freshmen.

This year, in light of the pandemic, Flegal felt compelled to open the program to all students. More than 40 students signed up for this year’s program, roughly double the normal number. With funding from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Boutelle Fund, Flegal was able to accommodate them all, splitting them up into a morning group and an afternoon group. She also offered “Saber Reboot” for kids in grades 10-12 who had been studying remotely or were new to the district.

The program centers on a ropes course designed by long-time wellness teacher John Dowd that has become a rite of passage for Souhegan students.

“Souhegan decided early on to make sure that students had an opportunity to do things they didn’t know they could do,” said Dowd, who helps run the program, along with Flegal and Tim Cotreau, the 9th grade school counselor. 

The ropes course experience is designed to fulfill three important needs for adolescents, Dowd explained: autonomy, belonging, and competence. All three have been in shorter supply during the pandemic.

“This is catching up,” he said. 

Competence, Dowd noted, is not the same as unearned confidence. Students thrive when they push themselves to accomplish something difficult. When friends and trusted adults witness the accomplishment, the rush is even greater. 

Already, friendships had begun to form among students who hadn’t met before last week, Flegal said. The students were also getting outside their comfort zones. One girl who’d been homeschooled last year made sure to tell Flegal on the first day that her mother had made her come to the program. The next day she said, “Don’t tell her, but I’m having fun,” Flegal said.

Some students rise to the challenges quickly, while others take their time. No one is required to do the activities, but most of them eventually try it, Dowd said. For some, spending some time belaying their peers makes them more comfortable trusting the process. 

Peyton Remick wasn’t feeling too trusting as he crept along a pair of cables suspended about 30 feet in the air. 

“John, how can I have more confidence?” he shouted down to Dowd (teachers are addressed by their first names at Souhegan). 

“Confidence comes with experience,” Dowd shouted back, “and you’re gaining experience now.” Then, following up in a more practical vein: “When you’re feeling iffy, spread your feet apart. … Walk like a duck.”

Little by little, with his friends offering up the kind of banter that qualifies as support among high schoolers, Peyton traversed the ropes and arrived at the other side.

“It was nerve-wracking. … I’ve never done anything like this,” he said once safely on the ground. 

He’s less nervous about starting high school, even though he studied remotely all last year. “I’m actually quite excited,” he said. “This year I’m hoping to be with my friends and really get into things.”

About this series: This story is part of a series highlighting solutions, success stories, and best practices at schools around the state. If you have a story you’d like to share, contact Sarah Earle at