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Outdoor School funding will be on November ballot

Measure would expand program supported by FG board member

TRIBUNE PHOTO: BIANCA PAHL - The Save Outdoor School for All Campaign announced it received enough signatures to provide a measure on November's ballot.Oregonians will have a chance to vote on a measure that provides funding so every fifth- or sixth-grade student in the state can experience Outdoor School, a multi-day overnight camp that gets children out into nature and helps them bond with their classmates and teachers through team-building activities.

The Secretary of State’s Office confirmed Friday, July 29, that the Save Outdoor School for All campaign gathered 93,102 valid signatures — well beyond the 88,114 required to make the Nov. 8 ballot.

That pleases Gales Creek resident Kate Grandusky, who is a member of the Forest Grove School Board and a strong advocate for returning Outdoor School to the Forest Grove School District.

“Both my kids attended and they had a wonderful experience,” Grandusky said, remembering when her son’s Outdoor School was held at the Oregon coast and the students saw eagles and paddled canoes — some for the first time.

That was some 20 years ago, however. FGSD discontinued the overnight Outdoor School program in the 2003-04 school year, opting for on-site, during-school activities. It dropped the program altogether in 2009-10, according to Communications Director David Warner.

Before doing so, it had used “a little of everything” to pay for the program, Warner said — grants, fundraising and financial assistance from parents.

The Banks School District, which still offers Outdoor School each spring for its fifth-graders, charges $250 per student, with scholarships available for families that can’t afford it, said Superintendent Jeff Leo. The state reimburses transportation costs, he said.

It’s important to give students “real-world, hands-on educational opportunities to complement their technology and book-based education,” Leo said.

That could mean everything from measuring the circumference of a tree and calculating how many board-feet it might produce, said Grandusky, to “checking the pH in the streams, looking at the makeup of the soil” and other natural applications of science and math.

Because not every city, school or parent can afford to send students to Outdoor School, last year’s Senate Bill 439 established a statewide grant program to support outdoor learning. But it came with no funding.

This year’s ballot measure would dedicate 4 percent of lottery funds (up to $22 million per year) to finance a full week of Outdoor School for 50,000 upper-elementary students and 3,000 camp counselors (high school students) statewide.

Currently, most Oregon students attend Outdoor School for two to three days or not at all, said Paige Richardson, the campaign director. “You need the back half of the week for personal development to happen.”

Seeing classmates and teachers in a totally different setting, “sitting and eating with other kids they’ve never sat with,” creates bonding experiences that wouldn’t likely occur in the regular school setting, Grandusky said.

Not everyone is a fan of the measure. State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, doesn’t like how it would siphon money from other lottery-supported programs and reduces the flexibility of the lottery fund, which lawmakers used to help sustain services during the recession.

“IP 67 sounds great on the surface, but it is fraught with unintended consequences,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is there is only so much money, and lottery money is the most flexible money we have, and if we are repurposing the money for specific financial obligations, we are taking it away from something else.”

But the idea is not new. Oregon voters approved constitutional amendments in 1984 designating lottery funds for economic development, in 1995 for public education and in 1998 for state parks and salmon watershed restoration.

And supporters believe Outdoor School’s benefits are well worth the money.

“This program changes kids’ school success, their identity and their career targets for the better,” Richardson said. “That puts them on a path for economic success.”

Outdoor School is more than just a week off from sitting in a classroom, said Rex Burkholder, chairman of the campaign committee. It helps kids develop environmental and outdoor awareness as well as social and personal growth.

“A lot of kids don’t get out into the woods and have those kinds of experiences,” Grandusky said.

Some students return to Outdoor School in high school as counselors. Centennial High School graduate Tana Barnett said her most life-changing Outdoor School experience came when she returned as a counselor.

Throughout her middle school and high school years, Barnett says she made bad choices and gave up on school. Her adviser suggested she go to an Outdoor School workshop.

“That first week was heaven on the mountain,” Barnett said. “Being a student leader reminded me of who I was, and it honed skills that I didn’t even know I had.”

Barnett said she wants everyone to be able to have the experience and opportunities Outdoor School provides.

“Outdoor School is important,” she said. “It gives sixth-graders a light to carry them through the dark years of middle school. It gives high school students the opportunity to find out what it means to be looked up to. And it gives everyone who passes through the program the opportunity to be loved truly for who you are and not just what you have to offer.”

Research shows that Outdoor School improves a student’s performance, attendance and motivation in school, said Christine Vernier, chief petitioner of the initiative and a campaign committee member. “Outdoor School changes the lives of kids and we, as Oregonians, really owe that to our kids.”