Twenty years ago, fifth- or sixth-graders were often shipped to the woods by their public schools to learn environmental science, hands-on, for as long as a week.
Those excursions still exist in some school districts. Cripple Creek sends all its sixth-graders to "outdoors school" for three days. Jeffco Public Schools still offer sixth-graders a full week. So does Academy School District 20, where parents pay most of the cost of the trip to Sanborn Western Camp near Florissant.
But as school budgets have grown tighter, many Colorado districts have scaled back. In both Falcon School District 49 and Colorado Springs School District 11, for instance, opportunities are available only in some schools.
Linda Murray, assistant superintendent of Woodland Park School District RE-2, says her schools limited the excursions (now simply field trips) to sixth-graders. "It's been a long time since we've done a full week," she says — which is why the district seized the chance to bring a pilot outdoor education program to its 1,100 elementary students next year.
Elevate Environmental Education, or E3, is a partnership among the school district, the Catamount Institute and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation. Starting in September, Woodland Park's three elementary schools will give kindergartners through fifth-graders 10 lessons in nature. If the program works, it could be expanded to older kids, or replicated in other districts.
Making it happen
Kindergartners and first-graders won't venture beyond the borders of their school grounds. But older kids will get their lessons at the nearby Aspen Valley Ranch, which is owned by the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.
The total cost of the new program hasn't been worked out, but the school board will have to pay for busing and will also likely pay Catamount between $30,000 to $45,000. The district will get three Catamount instructors to lead the program with help from teachers and volunteers, materials like mini solar panels and water-test strips, and a curriculum designed to sync with state-approved science standards.
Catamount has long offered after-school programs, field trips and other educational assistance in Woodland Park and other school districts; its Y.E.S. Club takes kids across the state, from caves to mines, to learn about the world around them. Last school year, Murray says, staff began looking for a way for Catamount to teach a class at one of the Woodland Park elementaries with an alternative class schedule. From there, the idea grew.
Eric Cefus, PPCF director of philanthropic services, says he was excited when Catamount and Woodland Park School District leaders asked him for the use of Aspen Valley Ranch for E3. His son was a member of the Y.E.S. Club last year and came back with great stories and a better understanding of science, he says.
The ranch, which is offered at no cost, is used for community events and gardening that produces food for the needy. It features a variety of habitats, a pond, two houses, barns, greenhouses, solar panels and a yurt. It offers a "unique opportunity for any school district in the Pikes Peak region," Cefus says, "but luckily it's right there in RE-2's backyard."
Back to nature
Teachers, administrators and Catamount staffers are scrambling to iron out details and craft a curriculum before September. Catamount Institute education director Tracy Jackson says her organization has been careful not to inject political views into the lessons.
"It's very important to us to teach students how to think, not what to think," she says. "We are not ever there to tell them that solar panels should be on everybody's house. Instead, when we do a lesson on solar panels, the students actually do research to learn that in some situations solar panels are awesome, and in other situations it's really silly to put a solar panel on your house."
The curriculum is also designed to be exciting. Instead of watching the life cycle of a captive insect in the classroom, for instance, students will be able to observe those processes in nature. Instead of learning about renewable and nonrenewable energy from a textbook, they'll be able to use mini solar panels to measure energy production.
"It's meant to provide the hands-on, meaningful, 'why' experience," Jackson says, "where students aren't just reading about something — they're getting to put their hands on it and see that it's a real part of their community and the place that they live."