It was early evening in late May. Dinner was done and caper crews of students — “caper” is camp-speak for “chore” — had stacked the firewood into wheelbarrows, swept the dining hall floor, and (eew!) cleaned the bathrooms. The fading spring 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 the campers called Ivy told the 11- and 12-year-olds, nervous about their upcoming acting debuts. “I remember doing it when I went to camp. It’s actually fun.”
“Ivy” is really Kelsee Morgan, 16, a junior in high school. Like every girl in her tent, she attends school in Crook County, Oregon. And, like every girl in her tent, she went to this camp in May of her sixth grade year.
For many in the rural county, once home to loggers and now newly home to Facebook and Google server farms, this summer camp-like experience is one their parents couldn’t have afforded. About two thirds of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 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 crystal clear headwaters of Jack Creek — a mountain stream bubbling out of the earth in the shadow of a jagged 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, arms linked at the elbows, baseball caps on backwards, braids swinging.
Kelsee, aka Ivy, says her sixth grade camp experience was life-changing.
“I wasn’t very outgoing,” said the well-spoken teen. “I was shy.”
Afterwards, she said, she was more confident and worried less about what others thought. That’s why she’s back as a counselor teaching hands-on science lessons to her campers and learning more about what she’s capable of as a leader.
“I feel like it’s something that every kid should be able to experience,” she said.
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 week-long, overnight outdoor school.
If voters do approve Initiative 67, up to 4 percent — or no more than $22 million annually — of the unallocated Oregon State 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,” like the one Prineville hosts, 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,” said Caroline Fitchett, the director of the Outdoor School for All campaign, which gathered 140,006 signatures to place the measure on the ballot this fall, according to Fitchett. Only 87,213 signatures were required, but Fitchett said the idea was very popular. “It transcends politics,” she said. “It’s about being an Oregonian.”
Many of the people who signed the petitions, which popped up at beer festivals, outdoor stores and nature centers throughout the state, attended outdoor school themselves as children. Oregon has a long history of offering overnight, outdoor learning programs as part of the regular school year schedule
The first outdoor school here took place in 1957 when Irene Hollenbeck, a professor at Southern Oregon College, led a group of Medford students and their teachers in a week-long 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 their local schools.
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 supplementing 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, one million Oregon school children 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, said Sarah Bodor, the 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 children.
Bodor said Oregon’s initiative is “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.”
Bodor said the best environmental education programs teach kids “how to think critically about complex issues and much less about what to think.”
Back at Crook County’s outdoor school, Kyla Seamons, 13, and Triston Fischer, 12, gathered firewood and helped their counselor, Falcon (aka Carson Porter, 16), dig a pit in a little clearing they’d identified as safe for a campfire. Their “hobo stew” packets — kielbasa sausage, vegetables and butter wrapped up in heavy-duty tinfoil — sat in their packs waiting to be cooked.
Twenty minutes earlier, 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, aka Falcon, 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 enemies in the ongoing land management debates here, are standing together as supporters of Outdoor School for All.
Last year, the state legislature, which leans Democratic by a slim margin, voted nearly unanimously to approve a bill to make outdoor school available to all. Just one representative voted “no.” Then, there was no funding attached to that law, which may have made it an easy ‘yes’ vote. This initiative, if it passes, will provide the money to make the program outlined in the law a reality.
The near unanimity of last year’s vote surprised and encouraged Dick Powell, a retired forester for Starker Forests, Inc. in Benton County. 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,” Powell said. “How we teach ‘em [kids], 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. Four percent of the Oregon labor force worked in agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting or crop production in 2015, according to the state employment office.
“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 said. 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), said the hands-on scientific exploration skills are hugely important. But for many kids, he said, 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 afterwards, 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, Prince said.
“Time and again, district leaders tell me, ‘We’re not questioning the value of the experience, just the money,’” Prince said.
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 outdoor school from the budget. Lori Meadows and Les Parker, sixth grade teachers and the Crook County Outdoor School co-leaders, decided they weren’t about to cancel camp on their watch. It had only happened once, in 1984, and “those kids are still bitter,” Meadows said.
For several years Meadows and Parker wrote grants and ran local fundraisers to come up with the money until finally, in 2015, the board was again able to take on the bulk of the cost. Given their success at keeping their program going on their own, Meadows and Parker are wary of state intervention.
“My concern is that it would box us into a certain thing,” Meadows said.
“It’s bureaucracy,” added 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’ on it in November. In part, they said they were thinking of other districts without the long outdoor school history of Crook County.
Attendance at outdoor school statewide has been uneven. In the rural, southwestern corner, less 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, also struggle to consistently offer week-long outdoor school programs and must sometimes offer 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,” said Andrea Watson, spokesperson for Reynolds School District, of the current school board.
A guaranteed stream of lottery money, not subject to the tug-of-war for funding in the state capital, could be that source, Outdoor School for All campaign director Fitchett said. The lottery “is the one option the public has to allocate funds,” she said.
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.
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 pre-teen. 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 said.
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. Now, he has a master’s degree, a teaching job and a family. And while he gives some credit to wrestling, the sport that earned him a college athletic scholarship, Shinkle said his time at outdoor school was a pivotal moment that he feels led to his adult success.
Now, it is his job to find a special reflection spot beside Jack Creek for every camper. Trees towering overhead, the campers sat alone, notebooks on laps, writing or just watching the bright water twinkle past. Shinkle, aka Kodiak, sat on a fallen log nearby. Still built like a wrestler — or a bear, if you prefer — he spoke quietly so he wouldn’t disturb his students.
“It’s not just a week outside,” he said. “This isn’t camp. It’s outdoor school. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”
This story also appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.