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Support the great Outdoor School

Outdoor school used to be an opportunity for all Multnomah Education Service District sixth-graders to experience learning outside of the classroom, but that opportunity is fading. Like many other valuable programs outside the standard classes students need to pass to achieve benchmarks and graduate high school, funding has been cut. So, middle schoolers may be denied the experience.

Outdoor School was nearly completely cut for the 2011-12 school year.

The program means enough to former and current student leaders that, led by their grassroots enthusiasm, they worked together with ODS Fundraiser Kim Silva and ODS Coordinator Dan Prince to raise money and awareness to save the program.

Their hard work and dedication seemed to meet the challenges brought by each new budget season by allowing them to offer the participating school districts a half-week-long program, as well as the traditional Monday through Friday program. Many schools chose the half-week option, which in the minds and heart of the student leaders I have spoken to, isn’t enough.

Traditionally, weeklong Outdoor School is a fun and valuable experience to more than just the 12-year-olds. As student leaders, high school sophomores, juniors and seniors act as mentors, teachers and friends to the middle schoolers that they would not regularly have the opportunity to meet. The high school students get the experience of teaching and being responsible for the sixth-grade students for a week at a time. Through the use of songs and dances, hikes and activities, students learn teamwork, cooperation and acceptance, all in the great outdoors!

There are four areas of study: plants, animals, water and soil. The student leaders and adult staff feel protective of their particular field study and a kinship toward their fellow student leaders. A great part of Outdoor School is its summer camp-like feel, which many of the participants may not have the opportunity to experience elsewhere, while learning earth science and celebrating our amazing Northwest climate and geography.

Each of the remaining three Outdoor School sites (there used to be five) is a second home for the staff and student leaders. They build a family, a supporting, loving community with a commitment to preserving the earth and nurturing self-esteem in students.

Alex Horsey, a senior at Wilson High School, is the founder and executive director of Project Believe in Me, a nonprofit dedicated to anti-bullying. Horsey attended Outdoor School as a sixth-grader at Robert Gray Middle School. The experience, which made him feel as though he had a place to fit in, led him to serve as a student leader at five sessions so far, starting as a 10th-grader at Wilson.

Horsey said, “Outdoor School was the first place where I had a place. Student leaders and staff valued my presence and made it known, and that's something that can be hard to find.”

He has made room in his busy senior schedule to serve as a student leader one last time this coming spring. It was easy to see Horsey's devotion toward ODS when he explained his feelings as he spoke at a budget hearing where he experienced a mutual feeling of hope and passion among everyone, not just those there specifically to speak on behalf of ODS.

Horsey said: “I took a bigger step out of my comfort zone a little later, when I spoke into a megaphone at the Save ODS Rally at Portland City Hall. What a beautiful, inspiring day that was!”

All the leaders at Outdoor School use designated "camp names," instead of their given names, usually related to nature. This helps in the process of separating from one’s everyday life, enriching the immersion in nature and the outdoor experience. Like a method actor taking on a character in a role, each leader can be his or her outdoor persona when answering to the camp name. This helps connect with others at ODS on a deeper level as well.

Horsey said, “I read somewhere that salmon can smell just half an ounce of their home stream's water, even when it's in millions of gallons of ocean water. I feel like that represents my connection to Outdoor School very well. It was the first place where I truly started to believe (in myself). During my third week, a field instructor sat with me and told me, ‘You matter.' It was the first time I heard that and truly felt it could be true.”

Horsey’s words are echoed by long-time ODS enthusiast and participant, April Pennington. She graduated from Wilson in 2005 and also said Outdoor School was like her second home as a teenager.

“It was a place that I could truly be myself. (As a student leader) I was able to be a positive role model for the sixth-graders, while watching them learn something new in the outdoors," she said. "I would be very disappointed if suddenly there were no outdoor opportunities for youth in our public schools, because ODS is what kept me going in high school. I so looked forward to every fall and spring when I got the opportunity to be in the outdoors working with youth and sharing my knowledge about the environment. Watching sixth-graders who struggled in their classroom environment thrive in the Outdoor School setting was very rewarding and will be something that sticks with me for a long time!”

ODS staff and student leaders are regularly amazing individuals who have a love of learning and teaching in and about our natural landscape. The MESD and ODS leaders are on their toes, ready to bring back Outdoor School full force, if there were just more funding. To find out more about the Multnomah Education Service District Outdoor School, its staff and donors, visit w3.mesd.k12.or.us/comm/ODSfall2012.shtml or friendsofoutdoorschool.org.

Families and foundations have made major gifts to ODS this year, but there is a need for more. If you remember your middle school ODS experience fondly or were bestowed the honor of being a high school student leader, hopefully you will be moved by those emotions of sentimentality to action, so many more Portland Metro youth will benefit from this great gift.