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home : education : schools November 19, 2017

10/10/2017 1:00:00 PM
Outdoor School is on in Oregon
Students across the state enjoy Outdoor School. photo by Jim Anderson
+ click to enlarge
Students across the state enjoy Outdoor School. photo by Jim Anderson

By Jim Anderson

Back in 1966, when Multnomah County began a five-day Outdoor School program for all sixth-graders in their system, Betty Gray of Portland - wife of John Gray who got Sunriver and several other Oregon-based projects going - thought her life-long dream of kids learning in the forest had at last come true.

The Gray Family Foundation, whose slogan is, "Outdoor School For Everyone," through the efforts and assistance of the Oregon Community Foundation, has kept Betty's dream alive.

Last November, voters approved Ballot Measure 99, designating funding for Outdoor School programming for school districts and Education Service Districts (ESDs) to serve fifth- or sixth-grade students in Oregon. The 2015 legislature had already charged OSU Extension with administering the statewide program when funding became available. In July of 2017 the legislature approved $24 million for the program's first two years, and right at the top of the list of financial institutions dedicated to helping Outdoor School happen in Oregon was the Gray Family Foundation.

For years, Sisters School District managed to provide an Outdoor School program on its own, with significant effort on the part of staff.

And now, Outdoor School for all fifth- or sixth-graders in Oregon is a reality. Old Camp Tamarack, a horse camp from the 1930s located near Suttle Lake, was purchased several years ago by Charlie Anderson of Bend, another person who shares Betty Gray's enthusiasm for children going outside to study the nature of the nature around them.

He set about remodeling the buildings at Camp Tamarack to accommodate middle-school students, their teachers and high school counselors who would come with them.

When asked about the current state budget, Anderson was so happy he almost shouted: "It's been a process with a number of people throughout the state working to secure state funding for EVERY fifth- or sixth-grade student in Oregon to attend Outdoor School, and how cool that starting this year there are funds in place to start doing just that ... sending EVERY fifth- or sixth-grade student to Outdoor School!"

OSU hired science teacher Kris Elliott, to be the administrator.

The new program will provide at least three consecutive days of outdoor education to Oregon's fifth- or sixth-graders as part of their school experience, and it may run as long as six days with overnight stays. For now, the Camp Tamarack program runs three days.

"Our task now is to support, to the maximum extent possible, all school districts and Education Service Districts that would like to provide Outdoor School programs for the 2017-18 school year," Elliott said.

"School districts and ESDs are free to design their own outdoor curriculum," Elliott said, "as long as the instruction meets the educational goals set forth in the 2015 legislation.

"We know some districts may not have a lot of experience in developing outdoor education. During the first year, we'll try to connect these districts with others that have more-established programs. The Outdoor School team will continue to deliver more resources as we fully implement the program."

Last week, Warm Springs fifth-graders were at Camp Tamarack from Monday to Wednesday. The students' day began in the morning with breakfast and the usual camp pep talks that get them prepared for their foray into the forest around the camp, with a positive attitude for camping and learning.

One tiny object has helped to bring this all about: the coveted "Purple Bean Award." A pin with three tiny purple beads arranged in a triangle is awarded to the student who demonstrates good camping habits and fosters a strong attempt to make things work better at camp.

Another distinctive asset to the present Outdoor School programs are the journals used by students and instructors. The student's journal has several pages for notes, instructions for behavior at camp, and on the very first page a drawing of a raptor with this statement beneath it: "This is an outdoor school where people, plants, and animals live together and learn from each other. This is your book to help you learn about the outdoors, remember your unique experience here, and share what you've learned with your friends and family back home."

Instead of the old Outdoor School technique of the students going to various stations set up in the forest to learn about trees, water, soils and wildlife, the new technique is to form "partners" within the group of students and they progress into the outdoor classroom to discuss various aspects of the forest that covers trees, water, soil and wildlife.

Most of the forest surrounding Tamarack was burned over by the B&B Complex Fire of 2003. The blackened trees were used to teach students about the nature of fire.

As a group of 10 students, divided into partner groups, began their trek into the wildlfire zone, they stopped often to discuss various aspects of fire and the recovering ecosystem.

"I notice..." one partner would say to the other, and then describe a particular part of the burned forest that caught his or her attention. Once one aspect of the forest was covered the group would change partners and move on to another viewpoint.

In this way, the instructors would guide the students into discussing fire, forest, water, geology, wildlife and the methods that were used to bring the fire into eventual control. At one point, one of the high school instructors asked why, if fire had destroyed so much of the surrounding forest, the buildings at Camp Tamarack were not burned.

That discussion went on for almost an hour on the fire-fighting methods that saved the camp, the firefighters' tools and procedures, money spent on fighting the fire, the impact not only on the forest itself, but on the native wildlife and ecosystem.

As the students continued on through burned and unburned parts of the forest, the instructors were able to inject the ideas of scientific discovery and use it to go deeper into aspects of biology and understanding the complexities of the ecosystem impacted by fire.

Instructor Ariel Clark, known by her "camp name" Orion, expressed a common sentiment:

"I just love working with students in this outdoor setting."

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