It was early evening. Dinner was done and caper crews of students – “caper” is campspeak for “chore” – had stacked the firewood into wheelbarrows, swept the dining hall, and cleaned the bathrooms. The fading light slanted through the trees as the girls from Dogwood Cabin headed back to their bunks to practice their end-of-week skit.
“It’s not that bad,” a counselor called Ivy told the 11- and 12-year-olds, nervous about their coming debuts. “I remember doing it when I went to camp. It’s actually fun.”
“Ivy” is really Kelsee Morgan, age 16, a junior in high school. Like every girl in her tent, she attends school in Crook County, in Oregon. And, like every girl in her tent, she went to this camp in May of sixth grade.
For many in the rural county, once home to loggers and now the site of Facebook and Google server farms, this summer camp-like experience is one their parents couldn’t afford. About two-thirds of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a federal measure of poverty.
But here they are. They sleep in cabins named after trees – Aspen, Manzanita, and Tamarack. They dip their water bottles in the headwaters of Jack Creek – a mountain stream bubbling out of the earth in the shadow of a volcanic peak called Three Fingered Jack. They wander the well-worn pine needle paths of this old Methodist summer camp in the midst of the sprawling Deschutes National Forest.
Kelsee says her sixth-grade camp experience was life-changing. “I wasn’t very outgoing,” says the teen. “I was shy.”
Afterward, she says, she worried less about what others thought. That’s why she’s back as a counselor, teaching hands-on science lessons to her campers.“I feel like it’s something that every kid should be able to experience,” she says.
In Oregon, that wish could come true if voters approve an initiative expected on the November ballot that would send every fifth- or sixth-grade student in the state to a weeklong, overnight outdoor school.
If voters do approve Initiative 67, as much as 4 percent – or no more than $22 million annually – of the unallocated Oregon Lottery revenue would go into a fund to be administered by the Oregon State University Extension Service. Any district could apply for help setting up, running, and paying for an “outdoor school” focused on scientific exploration and building life skills. Existing lottery-funded services for education, parks, and wildlife would not be affected.
“It transcends the divisions,” says Caroline Fitchett, director of the Outdoor School for All campaign, which gathered 140,006 signatures – above the 87,213 required – to place the measure on the ballot this fall, according to Ms. Fitchett.
“It transcends politics,” she says. “It’s about being an Oregonian.”
As Oregonian as salmon or Mt. Hood
Many of the people who signed the petitions, which popped up at festivals, outdoor stores, and nature centers, attended outdoor school themselves as children.
The first outdoor school here took place in 1957 when Irene Hollenbeck, a professor at Southern Oregon College, led a group of Medford, Ore., students and their teachers in a weeklong outdoor school program. Inspired, Margaret Milliken, a professor at Oregon State University, launched a pilot project the following year in Crook County that has been running ever since. Educators throughout the state soon copied the model established by Hollenbeck and Milliken.
In 1965, Oregon received a federal grant to expand the program under the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allocates federal funding to schools for categories ranging from teacher education to supplements for local schools serving low-income students to innovative school programs. Since then, outdoor school has become something of an Oregonian institution, right up there with rodeos, Mt. Hood, and salmon. According to the Outdoor School for All campaign website, nearly 1 million Oregon schoolchildren have attended an outdoor school since 1957.
Many American schoolchildren get a chance to spend a few days in the woods in fifth or sixth grade, says Sarah Bodor, director of policy for the North American Association for Environmental Education. But as far as she knows, no other state is considering funding an outdoor school experience for all its children.
Ms. Bodor calls Oregon’s initiative “really exciting.” She thinks schools need to give kids “a basic environmental literacy, a basic understanding of how Earth systems and human systems interact, and how decisions individuals make will impact those systems.”
The best environmental education programs teach kids “how to think critically about complex issues and much less about what to think,” Bodor says.
‘In class, you watch.... Here, you do....’
Back at Crook County’s outdoor school, Kyla Seamons and Triston Fischer gathered firewood and helped their counselor, Falcon (aka Carson Porter, age 16), dig a pit in a little clearing they’d identified as safe for a campfire. Their “hobo stew” packets – kielbasa, vegetables, and butter wrapped in heavy-duty tinfoil – sat in their packs waiting to be cooked.
As she put her stew together, Kyla said, “My favorite part is getting to participate in stuff. In class, you watch the teacher do it. Here, you do it.”
“And it’s sort of good,” Triston said, “because you learn better that way.”
After gathering the firewood, Kyla and Triston joined their fellow campers crouched at the edge of the pit they’d just dug. Carson carefully layered tinder – small dry sticks and scraggly, dried-up moss – in the hole. He took his flint and steel out of his backpack and started scraping them against each other. It took a solid four minutes for a spark to catch. No one’s attention wavered.
Perhaps because so many Oregon voters have memories of moments like this one, the list of backers for the initiative bridges typical political divisions. Lumber companies and nature conservancies, often on opposing sides in the ongoing land management debates here, are standing together as supporters of Outdoor School for All.
Last year, the state Legislature voted nearly unanimously to approve a bill to make outdoor school available to all. Just one representative voted “no.” But there was no funding attached, which may have made it an easy “yes” vote. Initiative 67, if it passes, will provide money to make the program outlined in the law a reality.
That near unanimity of last year’s vote surprised and encouraged Dick Powell, a retired forester for Starker Forests Inc. in Benton County. Mr. Powell, who spent part of his career as an “outreach forester” showing kids around Starker’s privately held lands, strongly supports the initiative.
“A lot of what it takes to make a good community is what you put back into it,” he says. “How we teach ’em [children], how we raise ’em, is what us old folks are going to have to deal with.”
That’s especially true in a state where “farming trees,” as Powell puts it, is still an important business. “It’s not a question of if we’re going to use [natural resources]; it’s more of a question of how we’re going to use them,” Powell says. For his part, he’d like the people making those decisions to be well versed in the ecological observation strategies introduced at outdoor school.
Dan Prince, who coordinates outdoor school for most of the school districts in Multnomah County (home to Oregon’s biggest city, Portland), says the hands-on scientific exploration skills are important. But for many kids, he says, the biggest lessons could be things like learning acceptance for those who are different or bravery in the face of a first night away from family.
Children who attend outdoor school in Multnomah County – especially boys, Asian students, and students whose first language is Spanish – are more likely to show up to school afterward, according to a study by Portland State University. High school students who get to be outdoor school counselors report being more confident at public speaking, more interested in other volunteer opportunities, and even more likely to use conflict mediation skills with their peers, Mr. Prince says.
“Time and again, district leaders tell me, ‘We’re not questioning the value of the experience, just the money,’ ” Prince says.
Crook County School District, for example, spends about $65,000 a year to send its 240 sixth-graders to outdoor school. Just after the recession, the school board had to cut it from the budget.
Sixth-grade teachers Lori Meadows and Les Parker, the Crook County outdoor school co-leaders, decided camp wasn’t about to be canceled on their watch. It had happened only once, in 1984, and “those kids are still bitter,” Ms. Meadows says.
For several years, the two teachers wrote grants and ran local fundraisers to come up with the money. Finally, in 2015, the board was again able to take on the bulk of the cost. Given their success at keeping the program going on their own, Meadows and Mr. Parker are wary of state intervention.
“My concern is that it would box us into a certain thing,” Meadows says.
“It’s bureaucracy,” adds Parker. “I’m not real wild about having someone from somewhere saying, ‘You have to do this to get money.’ ”
Still, both teachers signed the petition to put the measure on the ballot and plan to vote “yes” in November. In part, they say they were thinking of other districts without the long outdoor school history of Crook County.
For example, in the rural, southwestern corner of the state, fewer than a quarter of students participated in outdoor school in 2012, according to a report by the Oregon Community Foundation, a local philanthropy.
Burgeoning urban districts, like the Reynolds School District, which covers part of Portland and several neighboring communities, are also challenged on this front – sometimes offering shortened, three-day programs.
“I’m sure if they had a regular source of income for doing it, they’d do the long [outdoor school program] every time,” says Andrea Watson, spokeswoman for Reynolds School District, referring to the current school board.
Part of the magic of Crook County’s outdoor school comes from its time-honored traditions: French toast on Wednesday mornings, skits on Thursday nights, camp names. And the traditions are especially meaningful because most of the counselors and many of the teachers had nearly the same experience when they were in sixth grade.
‘I came up here and it changed me’
Kodiak, Crook County Middle School’s shop teacher (who’s known as Mike Shinkle when not at camp), first showed up here 35 years ago as a gawky preteen. He now thinks that week, and the one a few years later when he returned as a counselor, saved his life. “I came up here and it changed me,” he says.
Mr. Shinkle especially remembers being given the time and space to sit alone and reflect – another camp tradition. Those moments made him realize he wanted to stop acting out in class, stop picking fights with other kids, and choose a direction for his life. In time, Shinkle became the first in his family to go to college.
Today, he has a master’s degree, a teaching job, and a family.
And while he also credits wrestling, the sport that earned him a college athletic scholarship, Shinkle says his time at outdoor school was a pivotal moment.
Now, it is his job to find a special reflection spot beside Jack Creek for every camper.
Trees towering overhead, the campers sit alone, notebooks on laps, writing or just watching the bright water twinkle past. Shinkle sits on a fallen log nearby. Still built like a wrestler – or a bear, if you prefer – he speaks quietly so he won’t disturb his students.
“It’s not just a week outside,” he says. “This isn’t camp. It’s outdoor school. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.