Outdoor School digs for greenbacks

Fundraising tries to maintain Oregon's sixth-grade tradition
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Jennifer Starkey shows her flair during a planning meeting for the "Save Outdoor School" campaign, kicking into high gear this summer. Portland Public Schools reduced the six-day program to three days starting this fall.

For the past 45 years, it's been a rite of passage for sixth-graders in Oregon to attend Outdoor School for six days. Seven thousand students traditionally attend in Multnomah County alone.

This fall, however, the number of students who'll be able to participate is still up in the air. Some students will attend for six days, some for three days and some not at all.

A grassroots effort to 'Save Outdoor School' is trying to restore Portland Public Schools - and neighboring districts as well - back to a six-day program this fall after the district reduced it to three days to slice $625,000 from the budget.

'Our main goal is to do everything we can,' says Kelly Bosworth, a volunteer coordinator for the latest fundraising campaign. 'Our goal is all kids, all week.'

Over the past two weeks, high school students have organized a steering committee, set up public meetings, started letter-writing campaigns (to legislators and others), established a Facebook page and staffed booths at public events.

There are 'Save ODS' buttons; 'Do you remember ODS?' signs; a documentary and blog in the works, plans for a benefit concert, campfires, 'Outdoor School in Pioneer Square,' canvassing and phone-banking.

Just about all of the students are passionate about restoring the program because it was a life-changing event to sixth graders. Many sophomores, juniors and seniors return as Outdoor School volunteer student leaders. Some get academic credit for the experience; some just enjoy working with children or being outdoors.

In all, Portland sends slightly more than half of the Outdoor School participants each year: 900 high school student leaders and 3,700 sixth-graders.

It costs $190 to send a sixth-grader for half a week, $360 for a full week. High school students attend for free.

Established in 1966 by the Multnomah Education Service District, Outdoor School is considered one of the longest running and most successful environmental education programs in the nation.

Sixth graders study plants, animals, soil and water in a several-acre outdoor classroom called a 'study plot' for six hours a day, building on the natural science lessons their classroom teacher led in the weeks before the trip.

They take a break from their study plots with an hourlong recreation period during the day, where they take part in hikes, nature crafts, bait casting, archery or other activities. Evenings end with a campfire program - skits, songs and stories - as well as quiet reflection time during the day.


Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Volunteer organizer Kelly Bosworth (second from right) meets with former Outdoor School leaders to strategize their fundraising efforts this summer. Besides the grassroots effort, Metro leaders are tapping local utilities for long-term funding solutions.

Beginning to blossom

The fundraising campaign will be a speedy one.

Around Aug. 19, organizers will take stock of their fundraising efforts and see what can be restored for the fall. Donors will get to choose which district they want their dollars to benefit.

Since state funding shortfalls have affected each school district differently, Outdoor School funding is a cobbled-together effort of district sponsorship, grants from various sources, and parent and community fundraising.

Gresham-Barlow sends its students for three days. Centennial hasn't participated for the past two years. Parkrose, Reynolds, Corbett, David Douglas and now PPS are trying to restore their reduced programs to full-strength through a host of fundraising efforts.

The tiny Southwest Portland district of Riverdale is the only one in the county to preserve the program's full six days.

When Portland Public Schools was only able to afford to send half its sixth-graders to Outdoor School in 2003, a nonprofit called Friends of Outdoor School formed and raised the other half of the money through grassroots and corporate giving.

Since then, the friends group has raising up to $160,000 a year from the community to support the program, in addition to securing grants and maintaining relationships with other funders.

One of those is the Metro regional government, which increased its fee on garbage haulers three years ago to support Outdoor School as part of its waste reduction programming. Metro pays $58 per student - the cost of one day's instruction.

To that end, Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder is spearheading conversations with local water, sewer, electric and gas utilities to possibly fund Outdoor School sustainably through those sources.

'Every utility has a certain set-aside for encouraging people to use resources better,' Burkholder says. A lot of it goes to traditional outreach, such as stuffing fliers in with ratepayers' bills. The problem with those methods is that 'we're not sure it works,' he says.

A more effective way to teach conservation, Burkholder says, is to arm sixth-graders with the science, math and other skills they'll need to be good stewards of the environment.

At Outdoor School, he notes, kids scrape their food leftovers into a coffee can at the end of each meal and weigh it. There's a ton left at first, but by the end of the week, almost nothing is wasted.

Burkholder says local utility leaders he's spoken with are 'intrigued.' He's looking to hire a part-time staff person to coordinate Outdoor School funding initiatives that are happening at multiple levels.

Three days at Outdoor School isn't enough, he says.

'It's about the kids opening up. Three days is just when they let go of their defenses. That kind of blossoming is almost as important as the educational facts.'

For more information: www.friendsofoutdoorschool.org .