Restoring an Oregon tradition

“Outdoor School For All” aims to increase down-in-the-muck learning

Outdoor school has provided high-quality, place-based science education to Oregon youth for nearly 60 years. Launched in southern Oregon’s Curry County in 1957 as a way to reengage young people with nature and the natural resource economy, by 1970 more than 80 percent of Oregon middle school students attended outdoor school.

Outdoor school programs take place at a pivotal stage in a child’s development, creating meaningful memories that last a lifetime. In addition to getting real-world, hands-on, down-in-the-muck knowledge about the natural world and how it works, the skills and experiences gained through outdoor school instill self-confidence, help youth realize their leadership potential, and make them more self-sufficient.

There is something transformative about taking a group of young people into the woods for a week. Not only do they have time to learn more by doing, they learn how to live with kids from all over, with different backgrounds. Many outdoor school programs use high school students as junior counselors. Being responsible for 10 to 12 sixth graders for a week changes their lives, too.

But don’t take my word for it. Here's what Firelily, a student in Sandy, says about her time at outdoor school:

“I am a fourth-timer [student leader] at Sandy River ODS, and I believe that it is a terrific program. It is an extremely important way for sixth graders to learn about nature, conservation of resources, themselves, and how to interact with others around them. In the words of site supervisor Snake, 'We live in a made-up world; out here in the forest is the real world.' I can honestly say that ODS has helped me to become more confident in myself, and through it I have found that I want to be a special needs teacher.”

Her story is not unique. The following quotes come from letters in support of outdoor school written to the Portland Public School Board when funding was in doubt in 2012:

“Outdoor school saved my life, really.” 

“If not for outdoor school, I would have dropped out of school.”

“I am a geologist/naturalist/school teacher/better person because of outdoor school.”

Many educators across the state know how valuable outdoor education is. In addition to sending their sixth graders to outdoor school, Tillamook School District integrates outdoor education into every grade level. Why? In the words of Superintendent Randy Schild, “Doing is the best way to learn.” 

First graders learn about simple machines by moving logs across the playground. High school students monitor wetland health; develop new uses for agricultural “byproducts;” and have earned trips to national and international science competitions, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. 

Watch a short video of Superintendent Schild on the value of outdoor education.

Outdoor school historically was available to nearly every Oregon child: urban, rural; eastern, western; affluent, poor; able-bodied and disabled. Yet today, only about 45 percent of Oregon youth have the opportunity to attend outdoor school — and mostly for a reduced, three-day program rather than a full week. This number is dropping every year, as school districts struggle to find funding for this exceptional program. We can’t afford to lose this Oregon tradition. But we are. 

In the Portland metro region, thanks to funding from Metro, outdoor school is hanging on … but just barely. Depending on the school district, students may have to pay (Portland Public Schools asks families to pay $120 for a three-day program) or raise funds to go. Some years ago, Metro enacted a $1-per-ton tipping fee on solid waste that pays for one day of outdoor school for all participating students. This has kept a three-day version of the program going in all but two metro-area school districts.

A new group, the Oregon Outdoor Education Coalition, has formed to give voice to the thousands of supporters and providers of outdoor education throughout Oregon. OOEC’s first project is to secure sufficient and sustainable funding to send every Oregon fifth or sixth grader to a full week of outdoor school or a comparable program that meets local needs. With the support of the Gray Family Foundation; Friends of Outdoor School; the Oregon Forest Resource Institute; Metropolitan Group; Davis, Hibbits, Midghall; and many others, the OOEC is mounting a public will-building campaign to persuade the Oregon legislature to invest $22 million a year to make Outdoor School For All a reality. 

We are launching the Outdoor School for All campaign on January 30 with a rally at the World Forestry Center in Portland from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will be fun activities for children and adults, food from local vendors, and stories from some of Oregon's most passionate outdoor school supporters — not to mention a surprise appearance from soccer mascot Timber Joey.

This is a pivotal time for outdoor education in Oregon, and we need your help showing that outdoor school programs have broad public support. So bring your wood cookie name-tag and your children, and join us.

Follow Outdoor School for All and RSVP for the kick-off on Facebook.

Trained as a biologist, Rex Burkholder has worked as a science teacher and in the Northwest forests. He helped start the bicycling revolution in Portland as a founder and policy director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. An early leader in sustainability and equity, Burkholder also co-founded the Coalition for a Livable Future, bringing together over 100 diverse NGOs in the greater Portland region. He was a member of the Metro Council from 2000-2012, where he led efforts to reform regional transportation policy and to integrate climate change into the decisions of all levels of Oregon government. Currently writing a book on Getting Things Done, he blogs about transportation, urban livability and climate change at www.gettingto2100.org