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Rex Burkholder: Restoring Oregon’s Outdoor School Tradition

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

 

Photo courtesy Outdoor School for All

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.

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 10-12 sixth graders for a week changes their lives, too.

But don’t take my word for it. What do the students say? One recent Outdoor School councilor in Sandy describes her time at outdoor school like this:

“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.”

In the Portland metro region, thanks to funding from Metro and fundraising by parents and the Friends of Outdoor School, outdoor school is hanging on…but just barely. Depending on the school district, students may have to pay (e.g., PPS asks families to pay $120 for a 3 day program) or raise funds to go. 

Nearly every Oregon child used to go to outdoor school. Today, only about 45 percent of Oregon youth go to outdoor school — mostly for only three days 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. 

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 and to ask the Legislature to fully fund outdoor school.

The Outdoor School for All campaign is launching on January 30, 2015, with a rally at the World Forestry Center in Portland, from 11-1pm. 

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

Trained as a biologist, Rex Burkholder worked as a science teacher and in the Northwestern forests. He started the bicycling revolution in Portland, Ore., as a founder and policy director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. An early leader in sustainability and equity, Burkholder also cofounded the Coalition for a Livable Future, bringing together over 100 diverse NGOs in the greater Portland region. He was elected to the Metro Council in 2000, serving 12 years, during which he led efforts to reform regional transportation policy and to integrate climate change into the decisions of all levels of government in Oregon.

 

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