Outdoor School and How it Came to Be

Outdoor School Counselors pose for a photo after the sixth graders go home. ODS is held for 15 weeks every year, in two separate sessions. Photo by Kelly Wade.

 

 

Drenched socks, muddied pants, chapped lips, mystery meat. These are all associatively gloomy characteristics, yet when all of them are bundled and tied together with wood cookies and beads, are they the highlight of the sixth grade? The community. The oddball teenagers that sleep in cabins outnumbered by 11 year olds for a week. The young adults they call Student Leaders.

As the school year started, some of the first flyers on the walls were recruitment posters for Outdoor School Student Leaders. Instagram feeds filled with recommendations to sign up. They do this because just as the highlight of the kid’s weeks is their Student Leaders, the highlight for the S.L.’s are the kids.

Hadlie Cyrus (11) went to Camp Howard this fall for her first season as an S.L. She describes the kids leaving: “On the last day, right before this little girl got on her bus home, she ran over to me, engulfed me in a hug, and told me I was her favorite! She wasn’t even in my cabin. As her bus drove away she waved at me from the window till she was out of sight. I was trying really hard not to cry the whole time. It was such an life changing week.”

That’s exactly what the Multnomah Outdoor School program wanted when they began in the 1960’s. Pilot programs had been started a decade earlier in California, and migrated up the coast over the next couple years. A committee was formed in order to begin an outdoor school there here in the Northwest.  Oregon’s program began as short teacher-guided nature trail, called the Portland Area Resource Education Tour or the P.A.R.E.T. Trail. The committee decided on a full out camp when the trail became a grand success, with over 5,000 students utilizing it.

P.A.R.E.T. asked for a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, but there was a misunderstanding and the department thought it was only a six month program, so they did not give it full funding. Luckily the P.A.R.E.T. committee was awarded a Grant award, and in 1966, they were able to secure full funding from the Department of Education. In the spring of 1967, Trout Creek Camp served as the very first home of the Regional Outdoor School program, seeing 637 students through six days and four field studies. Every year since, sixth graders have gone into the woods to get hands-on experience in nature. Student Leaders were added in ‘69.

With Outdoor School having existed for over half a century, the program has become a keystone for Oregon youth. Outdoor School’s Student Services Specialist, Kitty Boyer, attended the Howard location as a sixth grader, returned six years later as a counselor, and again a year later as a program leader. Boyer went on to get a psychology degree from PSU, unsure of her exact path. Her love for nature and working with kids prevailed, and she returned to Outdoor School.

The beginning of budget cuts for ODS began in the early 2000’s, causing school districts to attend for only half as long if not having to abandon ODS all together. PPS had decided to completely pull out of the program, but a huge fundraising kick from Portland community members fostered hope. As Boyer recalls, “They were able to raise about 500,000 dollars to send Portland Public Schools to Outdoor School that spring.” After this PPS committed themselves to getting kids to ODS even if for only three days. Two years ago, PPS was able to come back for the full week, but other school districts, such as Reynolds, can still only afford the half week.

Boyer believes that the full week is substantially more beneficial, stating that “They’re just starting to buy in on that Tuesday if they are doing a split week, and then they are gone.” The full week allows the students to create a community, while learning the full ODS curriculum. For Student Leaders, it builds leadership, opens them up to a statewide community, and helps the teens learn who they are out in the real world.

Outdoor School has been around so long for a reason: and that’s because there is nothing quite like it. In their day-to-day routine, students learn letters and numbers that they do not know how to relate to real life. According to the Department of Education, dropout rates soar as kids get older, and it’s because they aren’t buying in. ODS teaches sixth graders, teens, and adults alike, the importance of outdoor learning and how it relates to education

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