I'm paid to be an outdoor communication, somebody who is supposed to understand the who, what, when, where and why of all things outdoors. That's why I was pretty surprised when I first heard the National Archery in Schools Program (NASP). Later, I didn't feel too bad because I discovered it might just be the biggest, best and most unknown outdoor program for kids you've never heard about.

The program first came onto our radar when we interviewed NASP coordinator Tim Beck of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources at the Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show. Someone had suggested that Tim would be a good interview and the NASP program was something remarkable that doesn't seem to get much mass-media coverage. They were right on both accounts.

On the most basic level, NASP teaches archery. Students in grades four through 12 are taught the fundamentals of shooting a bow but the programs teaches so much more than simply the art of launching arrows at a paper target. "It doesn't matter if you're very athletic, tall, short," Beck said. "It doesn't matter if you walk into the gym or roll in, it's a very inclusive program that everyone in the school can participate in."

"Kids love it," Beck continued, "but parents, teachers, administrators- they see the value in it. It's a whole lot more than casting an arrow downrange. What we're doing is building self-confidence, instilling discipline and decision-making (in the kids) as they compete against themselves."

"We're now getting the phone calls from mom and dad saying 'it's made such a difference in the student's life from the standpoint. They feel good about themselves, it's helped with their grades and conduct in school.' People have seen what this program can do," Beck said.

NSAP started in Kentucky in 2002 and was brought to Indiana in 2005. From the initial Indiana pilot program of 10 schools, it has now grown to 425 schools across the state and encompasses around 60,000 students. School use archery as part of the physical fitness curriculum during the school day but most have also added it as an after-school club in which the kids get together to shoot, take Hunter Safety classes and generally share their new-found love of archery.

To get started in NASP, a school must commit to the program for five years while also financially supporting the cost of equipment. However, due to archery manufacturers and conservation groups stepping up to help, the initial cost of equipment has gone down from $5000 to only $500 currently. The equipment also isn't the cheap fiberglass stick bow that Your Faithful Correspondent was handed in "gym class" years ago. Instead, students are shooting quality compound bows and arrows made by major manufacturers.

One group, the Indiana chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, has donated over $100,000 to the cause. It makes sense for these businesses and groups to get involved because one major side-benefit of NASP is that students become interested in archery, shooting sports and the outdoors in general.

"If we can get them enjoying archery," Beck said, " they'll expand out, maybe try clay target shooting or rifle shooting or other activities." As part of the program, students also attend an Indiana Hunter Education course and get to work with Indiana Conservation Officers on a regular basis.

There has been surprisingly little push-back again the idea of including a politically-incorrect shooting program in a school. "Some people think it's a red flag but archery is safer than table tennis," Beck noted. He went on that once the benefits of the program are explained, most opposition dries up.

Competition isn't the primary focus of NASP but whenever get kids together in something that involves a scoring system, a tournament won't be far behind. "It's never been about competition, it's been about getting the students out there but everybody loves the competition side of things," Beck pointed out.

That is why we joined 2124 students and about 5000 parents, grandparents, coaches and administrators at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the NASP state tournament on March 14. "This is Indiana's largest indoor archery tournament every held," Beck said with pride, "when these students come in and you can see the intensity and focus they have, it's incredible; and the sound of 236 arrows hitting the target at the same (during each "flight" of competition) is something you should hear."

We might add that in our current state of society, just seeing thousands of youngsters full of focus, intensity and self-discipline participating in a shooting activity is an awe-inspiring sight, even for a semi-jaded (and quickly graying) outdoor writer.

Now you know more about the greatest archery program you've probably never heard about.

For more information about the program, visit http://www.indiananasp.com.

Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.