Loaded backpacks and battered Nalgene bottles drop haphazardly to the ground, as their fourth-grade owners huddle into a loose ball. Five or six of the kids crouch to the earth; about 20 others steal peeks from over mussed-up heads of hair.
And there it is: animal poop.
Jonathan Wuerth squats down with his muddy, sun-kissed students and pulls a guide from his patched backpack. He picks up a round, brownish pellet and holds it next to a short ruler. They all determine the "scat" is bigger than deer dung, which means an elk has been on the property.
A few more "wow"s, then Wuerth hoists his pack over his shoulder and continues the 10-minute hike to campus, kids surrounding and trailing him like rats (albeit cute ones) following the Pied Piper. One little girl, toting dishpan-size, dirty plastic bins up to her chin from their earlier afternoon studies, keeps up without missing a step.
In this moment, as the students tromp back to their portable school buildings, belting out a naturalist song, only one thought comes to mind:
These kids are happy.
I pledge allegiance to the Earth ...
This spring, the students who comprised the first class of School District 20's School in the Woods will graduate from high school. Some will go on to be environmentalists, some teachers, some lawyers. But all will take a little bit of School in the Woods with them.
In many ways, that class was the practice group, the guinea pigs for two enthusiastic adults inspired by the idea of teaching kids about the natural world while in the natural world. Their experience paved the way for every School in the Woods class that has followed; and now, also for like-minded students in two other Pikes Peak region districts.
In Woodland Park, Superintendent Guy Arseneau has approved installation of a program that will look and feel much like School in the Woods, except it will be in the mountains, in collaboration with the Catamount Institute.
And in Colorado Springs School District 11, Washington Elementary has just begun a partnership with Bear Creek Nature Center, specifically targeted at fourth- and fifth-graders.
Meanwhile, research into these kinds of educational experiences is growing. Whether by organizations like Outward Bound, which both runs and evaluates similar programs, or by mental-health professionals who want better answers than medication for children who struggle, studies show that having a connection with nature is important.
It makes you wonder: Has School in the Woods stumbled onto a key to educating kids today? Or a way to even change the world, little by little?
Amid the big trees
It was 1996 when Jonathan Wuerth and Carol Stansfield, two District 20 K-5 science teachers, left a meeting with then-Superintendent Donald Fielder. Concerned about the possibility of vouchers, Fielder was encouraging teachers to think creatively.
"One of his beliefs was that if we can provide parents and their children meaningful choices in a school district, we may not get forced to have vouchers," says Wuerth.
So they began brainstorming.
"[We] said, "What if we could do this ... or we could do this. We could take the kids out and do this,'" says Wuerth, his excitement building just remembering the day. "And then within about 15 or 20 minutes of us sitting in this little, tiny office ... we came up with probably 60 to 70 percent of what you see right here."
At the time, "here" was just state land board forestland. The district completed surveys to gauge general interest in this type of program, and based on positive results, purchased 10 acres of the 640 that make up the Section 16 parcel in Black Forest.
Wuerth and Stansfield scrounged for tables and chairs and computers and books and all other necessary resources, including the few portables that would serve as their classrooms. Then it was time to get parents involved.
"We had to notify them that this was an option, and had to have a meeting and discuss this," says Wuerth. "Parents had to sign on the line saying they would commit to sending their child to this school without there even being a school out here."
It wasn't easy.
"I remember a father raising his hand in the audience and saying, "You know, I'm one of those kind of guys that never buys a car the first year,'" Wuerth says. "And I said, "Well, unfortunately for you, this model ... this is only one year. This is your chance. There isn't a second year here for your fourth-grader. She'll be in fifth grade next year.'"
That first year, though, parents did commit. On day one in the fall of 1999, there was a full enrollment of 52 students, soon to be known as "naturalists" at School in the Woods.
Pond vs. Petri
During the pond-study section of the academic year, a typical afternoon class takes place on the muddy banks of the only pond on school grounds. Armed with long-handled nets, the naturalists catch and identify minuscule organisms from the water. Everyone wants to find a leech, and the one who does is revered by the others in a way other school kids might admire football players and cheerleaders.
This type of scene is common at School in the Woods, and it's because during curriculum development, Wuerth and Stansfield (who is now retired) keyed in immediately to some primary goals.
""We're gonna have kids ... that are going to be exposed to the natural world and have opportunities for free exploration and discovery,'" Wuerth remembers.
That hasn't changed.
"What's so meaningful about this experience, it's experiential learning," Wuerth says. "The kids are experiencing the ideas, the concepts that we're talking about, that we're having conversations about. And when that's connected, the learning's so much deeper than reading out of a book."
Students who attend School in the Woods spend as much time outside as possible day-to-day, often with Wuerth or his new co-teacher, Suzie Hodges. During the first week, each child heads out into the woods on the property and chooses a "solo spot," a quiet place where each will regularly journal about his or her experiences.
The group eats lunch on green metal benches under ponderosa pines, sometimes taking 15 minutes, sometimes half an hour, depending on how the day's schedule is coming along. Stellar jays and juncos and mountain chickadees flutter and soar about them, eating their own lunch of corn from stations the kids have set up.
Of course, Colorado state educational requirements are met. The students cover the same topics as the district's other fourth-graders. Just not in the same way.
In language arts, they read biographies about American naturalists. They regularly use field guides to identify plants and animals. They complete a storytelling session in January during which each student selects, memorizes and performs a Native American story. Spelling incorporates words that reinforce the science concepts they're learning.
The social studies program includes discussing current events involving the natural environment. It also includes identifying Colorado life zones, on the grounds of the school and through a trip up Pikes Peak.
Then there's science. The students study botany, pedology (soil studies), ecosystems and abiotic and biotic pond studies all outdoors.
"We followed porcupine tracks one time, and we saw all these porcupine tracks for a quarter of a mile and eventually they came to a tree and they stopped," Wuerth says. "And we looked up, all 52 of us, and there the porcupine sat. Fifteen feet above us. It's sitting right up there. The kids were so thrilled. ... That's the kind of thing you can do if you're in a natural setting."
These kinds of experiences aren't scheduled into the day, but the value they bring is significant.
As Wuerth says, "If I use all my time [tracking], and I don't get to [my plans] that day, I don't get to read, fine. Maybe [the students will] come in, and they'll write about their experience."
Wonder as you wander
Experiential school programs are not new, and one of the most recognized names in the field is Outward Bound. A character-building project started in World War II-era Great Britain, it made its way to the U.S. in 1961 with the Colorado Outward Bound School. Its Expeditionary Learning school movement, in particular, grew in 1992 when a proposal gained financial support that allowed Outward Bound to start 10 full-time demonstration schools in five cities, including Denver. Today, fueled in part by a $12.6 million Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, there are more than 140 schools across the country using ELOB principles.
While School in the Woods is not an Outward Bound program, its design principles are very similar, as are many of its essential values: self-discovery, responsibility for learning, solitude and reflection, and "the having of wonderful ideas."
"I think [these types of programs] are very engaging," says Greg Farrell, president of Expeditionary Learning Schools/Outward Bound. "They deal in a strong way with the motivation question. ... They give the students a reason to learn, a connection to the real world."
Similar programs continue to pop up, but relatively slowly. Available funding seems to be one reason why, although Farrell, for one, believes they're really not more expensive. It's just a matter of where school districts decide to put their money, as well as their time.
"It's harder to do," he says simply. "It's more work. It takes time and attention. ... When institutions get going in a certain way, there's a resistance to changing them. Not that they can't, but it's not an easy task."
Locally, parents are making it clear they want their kids to have such experiences. The number of applicants for School in the Woods rises each year; in 2007, 90 children applied.
This fall, Vicki Taylor, Black Forest resident and D-20 board member, sent the second of her sons to School in the Woods. Her older son, Evan, had such a wonderful experience that entering Chris, into the district's annual lottery was an easy decision.
"[Evan] just kind of came into his own. ... [and Chris] has really, really enjoyed it. He comes home and tells me all about the bugs in the pond," she says. "It's amazing, because you would think that it's just really strong in the science area. But they do an incredible amount of writing. And they're writing about things they're interested in."
She does point out a few sacrifices. There are no foreign language programs or formal art programs.
For a year, though, Taylor figures it's all right. And though there are no physical education classes, kids are plenty active. In the woods at recess, no cell phones or Game Boys are in sight. The only piece of playground equipment is a tetherball. Branches and pinecones and logs whatever can be found, basically become collateral to be haggled back and forth. Students gather these materials and build wiki-ups (individually made, wooden teepees). With a bit more imagination, wiki-up areas become carnivals and theaters and places for pretend sword-fighting.
Earlier this fall, a few students wrote a play during break times. Snow White and the Three Forks tells the tale of a culinary competition during which, in their words, "All Snow White cares about is being pretty, so she loses."
Unplugging the kids
Which brings us to issues of adjustment. Research is starting to look more closely at the natural world's impact on kids with problems such as depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obesity. As more and more children are buried in rooms full of toys or stuck in front of video games, their physical and mental health suffers. In an October Deseret News article, Dr. Joseph Cramer labels this generation "Generation W "W' for wired and worried."
More than 4 million youth ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to federal statistics. A 2005 University of Illinois nationwide analysis of play patterns in children with ADHD found that those kids who spent time in natural green spaces had significantly fewer symptoms than those who played in a "built" outdoor setting, or inside.
Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods author and chairman of the Children & Nature Network, writes: "Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity. ... Being close to nature, in general, helps boost a child's attention span."
Taylor has noticed this in her son Chris:
"He's very enthusiastic about what he's learning," she says, "and he seems to be able to remember all of it."
Wuerth easily jokes about his own ADHD.
"When I look at my report cards, I read back, "If Jonathan would just spend less time talking ...' But that wasn't me. I just couldn't."
While the impact can be similar on both boys and girls, girls may step a little further out of a feminine comfort zone to be successful at School in the Woods. It's easy to see fewer curling-iron curls and more loose ponytails. When they're side-by-side with boys, mucking through the mud and holding spiders in their hands, their self-confidence grows.
Remember the kids hovered around that scat pile? Listen to this not-so-uncommon exchange.
One girl pokes another. "You said, "Eew'," she chides.
"I did not,' the other responds. "I said, "Cool.'"
Jenny Lydiatt has a daughter in this year's class. She says Jayne has shown remarkable independence during her experience.
"Jayne didn't know anybody going out there," Lydiatt says. "There were two boys on the list from her school, but not that she's had much interaction with. I was impressed it didn't even bother her. She's made friends, lots of different kinds of friends."
Spreading like moss
Talk of confidence and independence and adjustment is all well and good. But in an age of standardized testing, the numbers need to add up, too. So it must be mentioned that Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores at School in the Woods, according to Wuerth, typically exceed average scores in D-20, a traditionally high-performing district.
That's no surprise to Outward Bound's Farrell.
"Teachers are afraid to some degree some teachers to be doing something that isn't directly related to what you think your child's going to be tested on," he says. "But I think that's a mistaken fear, for the most part. [Students] learn to solve problems, deal with the unexpected. When they're cast back on their own resources, then they go at things with more energy and more confidence."
Arseneau, the Woodland Park superintendent, is well aware of School in the Woods' CSAP scores. It was one positive that helped him win approval to start a similar program.
The recent partnership with the Catamount Institute, a local nonprofit that focuses on inspiring "ecological stewardship," will bring more fourth-graders to the natural world through a program based on School in the Woods and its curriculum.
Tentatively named the Catamount Mountain School, this program is scheduled to open in August 2009 with about 25 students from Gateway Elementary each year. But Arseneau wants to see the "mountain school" expand from there.
"We want to start it with a grade, but we'd like [at some point] to involve some students at Colorado College and Catamount to have high school students with college students doing real research, " he says. "We'd like to see this grow to benefit not only our kids but our community. ... It's our first baby step."
District 11 is also taking its own baby steps. Two weeks ago, Washington Elementary and Bear Creek Nature Center formalized a collaboration that is already sending adult naturalists to visit the 65 fourth- and fifth-grade students a handful of times over the year. The students are going to Bear Creek about the same amount of times. These ongoing exchanges will build up to a spring service project that the students will complete for Bear Creek, as well as an open house for parents.
In the future, says Washington principal Terry Martinez, this could serve as a starting point for service-learning and additional opportunities for working with local college students. Either way, the partnership will afford Washington students opportunities to establish ongoing relationships and to connect with adults who can help them learn about nature. And in District 11, that's something to celebrate.
"Our poverty rate is much higher than either [Woodland Park or District 20]," Martinez explains. "A lot of kids don't even have experience growing things."
Tell me about your day
Having more programs locally means more impact all around.
"As students learn, they appreciate," Wuerth says. "Once they appreciate, they want to do something."
Right off the bat, that means sharing information.
"These kids go home and, last year it was, "What did you do in school today?' And they were, like, "Oh, nothing.' That's just the way it is," Wuerth says. "And, out here, it's nonstop. ... The parents tell us they're pointing out different trees, pointing out ecosystems. And the parents are [also] telling me, "I can't get them to be quiet.'"
About her sons' experience, Taylor says, "I'm learning new things all the time, too."
And not just about bugs, or about how much more laundry needs to be done when kids are outside all the time.
"I think that we are more earth-aware a greener family," Taylor says. "My older son, when he was attending, organized family recycling."
Amy Park, who attended the first School in the Woods class in 1999, is now a senior at Air Academy High School. While Park's goals include attending college and, ultimately, law school, she says School in the Woods sparked her interest in environmental issues. She's taken an Advanced Placement environmental science class during high school and volunteers as a counselor for High Trails, a D-20 outdoor camp for sixth-graders.
"I made my parents change all our light bulbs to compact fluorescents," she says. "And we recycle."
Their family recycling soon turned to community recycling. Her mother, Deborah Park, a first-grade teacher at Foothills Elementary, started a recycling project there. She says she was "trying to get the community involved in ... reusing. Reducing. [School in the Woods] made me, too, be aware of our impact on the environment."
Since the program still is small, this kind of informal outreach is key. It starts as soon as a class leaves School in the Woods. (And yes, the kids' transition back to fifth grade, big schools and small desks, can be somewhat tough. They find themselves "looking out the window, instead of being out the window," says Taylor.)
Says Arseneau: "The students actually move back to fifth grade and carry that experience back with them the experience of being responsive to our environment. It's a good educational tool, and it's a good tool for our community."
That's a significant result, but Wuerth sees potential for much more.
Aside from opportunities for additional students, up through the high school level, he wishes for "a School in the Woods that reflects the future of buildings that are in a more harmonious relationship with the planet. A building that reflects who we are and what we learn about out here at School in the Woods... with solar, radiant heating ... the best insulation, and all the aspects of a [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] building."
That'll take a lot of time and a lot of money. But with a growing district and an even more-aware community, anything's possible.
Says Wuerth: "I have hope out here."