And just why does Denver have a 700-acre classroom?
"They think they're out of school, but they're not," the bus driver, Joe Sellers, confides as the fifth-graders rush from his yellow school bus onto the mountain meadow. Learning never stops at the Balarat Outdoor School.Skip to next paragraph
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For 10 years more than 100,000 pupils from the Denver public schools have used thid year-around education center 47 miles north-west of the city. Their "classroom" is 700 acres of mountain terrain dotted with forests, streams, large hills, meadows, and a pond.
Named Balarat from an Australian term meaning "good camping ground," the land was given to the Denver schools by an anonymous donor in 1968, under the condition that improvements be made but that the ecological systems be preserved.
This ecology is the focus for the fifth-graders from Traylor Elementary School. They listen to the frogs in the pond, learn that sedum can be a survival food, and discover that the bark of a ponderosa pine smells like vanilla when the sap is running. However, this "classroom" can adapt just as well to a seventh-grade art class or a high school group studying geology. Pupils from preschool through 12th grade use it.
A Balarat teacher, Alice Sato, gathers the fifth-graders around her, then divides them into three teams: one to go with her, one to go with their teacher, Dick Bradley, and one to go with Kurt Hopkins, a high school senior who assists them as part of a Balarat eco-seminar course he is taking. Mrs. Sato's team names themselves the "Aberts," after the tassel-eared Western squirrels.
Walking on paths marked by logs half buried in the ground, the teams follow their leaders. They stop to look at the meandering gopher tunnels, clearly visible when the snow has melted. Mrs. Sato points out a fallen hollow log that is "an apartment house" and "a supermarket" for the inhabiting ants and other insects.
"This is a lot better than junk food," observes one wise fifth-grader, as they sample wild onions and other plants that could be used for survival in the wilderness.
"Every inch of the way there is something to enjoy!" Mrs. Sato exclaims. Although she teaches at Balarat five days a week, she finds that each time she leads a group the "classroom" is a little bit different. One student points out a plant the teacher identifies as "grandfather's beard." Another time the group gathers around a rock that shelters a miniature fern -- a rarity in this arid climate. Then they all touch the trunk of an Aspen tree to feel the white "powder" on its bark.
"Children are wonderful -- so spontaneous. They notice and think about what they see," says Mrs. Sato appreciatively. One of five full-time Balarat teachers, she has been with the program since its inception and helped plan Balarat as an education center. Previously she had had experience both as a biology and elementary schoolteacher.
When it is time to eat the sack lunches each pupil has in a backpack, Mrs. Sato pauses. "What does fragile mean?" she asks. "It means don't be rough with it," a fifth-grader answers. Only after they learn that they must be careful with fragile nature -- so that one careless kick of their hiking boots does not trample hundreds of tiny plants -- are the children allowed onto the hillside.