Photo by Lani Vandehey
Decorated wood cookies proudly display Outdoor School camp names. At ODS, high school students have the opportunity to become student leaders and teach sixth graders about the environment.
Photo by Cody Roberts

Every year, more than 2,000 Oregon sixth graders flock to Outdoor School (ODS). Oregon voters approved Measure 99 to create the Outdoor School Education Fund in November 2016. This has allowed a unique program with a 62 year history to continue bringing students into wilderness camps for hands-on experience with field science. There, the middle school students learn about soil, water, plants, and animals while on site for up to five nights. The program isn’t reserved for sixth graders alone. ODS relies on volunteer high school counselors to teach the young scientists about these topics.

The experience is mutually beneficial, giving the sixth graders role models and knowledge while providing the high schoolers, or student leaders, with a valuable leadership experience. According to the Friends of Outdoor School website, 90% of student leaders have said that their time there increased their confidence. Many students have also reported that ODS increased their public speaking skills, self-advocacy skills, interest in volunteer opportunities, and interest in math and science in school.

However, the benefits for student leaders aren’t all in the statistics. Especially for students who attended in sixth grade, ODS is a comforting environment that can often feel like a second home. “I love the positive community it helps build,” says Aubrey King (11). “It can really unite a bunch of extremely different people for a week. It’s also really great to be able to go on upwards of two hikes a day and get to drink an ungodly amount of tea with no judgment at all.” While in the program, students bunk together in cabins, forming bonds that may last for years. ODS creates unity among sixth graders and high school students alike as they learn about both the environment and each other during their stay.

At the end of their time at ODS, campers, student leaders, and adults all participate in a flag ceremony to finish their week. During this ceremony, two sixth graders from each school represented and two student leaders are chosen to raise the flag before everyone leaves. Students are chosen for exhibiting ODS-endorsed traits like dedication, emotional growth, and bravery. “One of my favorite memories is being chosen as a student leader to participate in final flag alongside a student I had struggled with the whole week and ended up having a life-changing conversation with,” recalled Cleveland student Effy Reavis. “It was a really emotionally intense experience and though I knew it was the right thing, I had a lot of fear as to how this student would react. However, it turned out to be a positive thing as that helped him in his home life and we were both honored to be chosen to complete the final flag ceremony.”

All considered, ODS is a learning experience for all parties involved, one that creates lifelong memories and lasting friendships. Cody Roberts, a recent graduate from the Oregon Connections Academy, has fond memories of their time there. “During my second session at our last social hour, we all were talking and messing around. I vividly remember playing ‘My Shot’ from Hamilton on my phone while [other student leaders] and I were belting it from the tops of our lungs. My voice was mostly gone at this point and everyone wanted me to stop talking. I also had everyone’s names sharpied on my arms and my hair in like 5 different ponytails.” At Outdoor School, students of many ages come together to create an unforgettable experience.

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