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Outdoor Schools magic requires more time

My View • Popular program still searching for funding solution
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Jennifer Starkey shows her flair during a planning meeting for the "Save Outdoor School" campaign, which kicked into high gear this summer. Portland Public Schools reduced the six-day program to three days starting this fall.

We are proud parents of Portland Public School students. We are also proud Portlanders. We believe PPS's decision to cut this year's sixth-graders participation in Outdoor School to two nights is shortsighted and simply wrong for Portland.

PPS claims to be making hard choices by practicing fiscal responsibility (PPS sends Outdoor School cash packing, Aug. 25), but we would argue they are not the right choices for our students and our community. While we appreciate the clear economic challenges, this decision raises the question - what is education for?

At a time when so many people are questioning the focus on standardized testing, Outdoor School offers something more: continually demonstrating success for a broad diversity of students, including those who often underperform in the classroom. Ask any native Portlander younger than 56, and they will remember their sixth-grade experience at Outdoor School. Not many programs are as memorable to so many or have such a lasting presence. Dismantling a program that works as well as this one is fiscally irresponsible.

The Outdoor School experience is not just about science. It teaches kids to love learning; to know, be and believe in who they are; to be accountable to themselves and their community; to give their best; to trust that the world wants them to succeed; and to know that their 'community' extends beyond people that look and think like them.

Students learn invaluable lessons about both the natural and human communities that they rely on and impact, and about the interconnectedness of everything they see, touch, and do.

These lessons are essential. Our students need a deeper understanding of our connection to and place in the world around us than any generation before. And, with America's economic and environmental hopes dependent on new ways of overcoming challenges, students need to understand critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and community in ever deeper and more thoughtful ways. For all these things, we have no better program to look to than Outdoor School.

What is the difference between a two-night program and a five-night program? If you've been there, you know. The magic of Outdoor School simply requires time. Only after a few days do students really start to settle in. And finally, they don't want to leave. They have found a new home, one that they love.

This love - for the experience, for the community, for the natural world they learn about - is what carries with them and makes it the experience of a lifetime. But that deep connection only comes with time.

Portland is a leader in protecting green spaces, successful urban planning and sustainable living. Our Outdoor School program is a national model of a thoughtful science education program that provides a rich and positive community experience for all participants. These are intimately connected. We are who we are as a community, at least in part, because for many years, every native Portlander has had the privilege of experiencing their week of Outdoor School. A piece of that experience is carried with us. Outdoor School contributes to Portland's unique and appealing culture - a place for creative, connected people to come and for sustainable businesses to grow.

PPS said if 'the community came together' to find funding, they would gladly consider the full week. The community has. There have been unprecedented demonstrations of support for Outdoor School. Lasting institutions and funding sources have been secured since the Outdoor School funding crisis of 2003, and supporters continue to work toward new solutions.

• $500,000 was raised by volunteers, saving Outdoor School from mid-year cuts in 2003. Thousands of individuals and corporate donors made this possible.

• The Friends of Outdoor School was formed, which gathers advocates and funds for Outdoor School and offers Outdoor School-focused grant-writing services and other support to school districts ($43/student dedicated to PPS this year).

• Visionary leadership at Metro recognized Outdoor School's long-term role in educating our community about resource issues and produced a reliable source of funds ($58/student dedicated to PPS this year).

• Parents support the program by contributing a portion of the cost ($100/student for the five-night program last year).

• Each time Outdoor School cuts are announced, another passionate mob of high school students fills the PPS meeting hall, maturely and articulately advocating for Outdoor School.

• Students and citizens continue to organize, host events and raise funds.

Donors have surfaced, hopeful that PPS will reverse its decision. PPS asked us. We've responded - again and again. And we will keep at it.

Now PPS needs to respond as part of our community. We need to know they are committed - not just to the cheapest education possible, but to the most valuable. We need their help. And we need more evidence they genuinely want ours.

We ask PPS to step up. Come together with us and fund a full week of Outdoor School.

Briggy Thomas of Northeast Portland and Celeste Lewis of Southwest Portland are Portland Public School parents.