Just a little story about how an idea became a movement: Outdoor School for All
It all started with a sticky bun. But, of course, it started much earlier with the first Outdoor School in southern Oregon in the 1950s and the story got complicated by Measure 5 and all that, but with me, it did start with a sticky bun.
The year was 2000, and the Portland Public Schools was buffeted by another year of reduced funding. Oregon reeled economically with the dot.com bust. Outdoor School was to be a casualty. My son was in 7th grade, attending the Environmental Middle School in Portland. Fresh off a great experience the year before at Outdoor School, his classmates sprang into action, somehow connecting with the owner of the Great Harvest Bakery and getting him to donate the proceeds from sales for a few days. The kids invited all their families and friends to the Bakery and worked the counters ringing up sales of loaves, cookies and… delicious, whole wheat, sticky buns, my favorite. I was hooked. Grassroots fundraising and pressure on the PPS School Board succeeding in saving Outdoor School that year but the threat returned year after year and many school districts are still struggling or have given up.
That year I was elected to the Metro Council, the regional government in Portland chartered by the voters to “preserve and enhance the quality of life and the environment for ourselves and future generations” through planning and providing regional services like the Oregon Zoo, parks and natural areas and recycling and solid waste management.
What’s less well known is how deeply Metro is involved in conservation education. Metro reaches tens of thousands through programs at the Oregon Zoo and in regional parks like Oxbow but also with workshops and consultations like Recycle at Work and Transportation Options. Always being one to wonder how we can do what we do even better, I took on improving how Metro itself was delivering its messages about conservation. As might be expected of any large agency, a lot was going on but not in a very coordinated fashion. In addition, there was a big disconnect between what Metro was doing and what was going on out in the community with major players like Portland Audubon, OMSI and of course, Outdoor School.
In 2006, I convened conservation educators from throughout the region, over 60 people came to OMSI full of ideas of how we could get better by working more closely together. Lots of good came out of that first and subsequent meetings. But I heard a major warning signal, too. When I asked the assembly of experienced educators what their #1 priority would be in enhancing conservation education in the region, they unanimously chorused “Saving Outdoor School is priority number one!”
They valued Outdoor School for the same reasons the Metro Council would eventually dedicate almost a million dollars a year to supporting Outdoor School for every child in the Portland metro region: it works. With its blend of rigorous, science-based education and challenging young people to examine their role in their communities and in the world, Outdoor School is effective at engaging kids’ imaginations, their hearts and their heads. They really understand the challenges we face around natural resource use and conservation. Some become teachers, many will volunteer as student counselors, some will go into science as a career. But almost to a kid, they all leave their time at Outdoor School inspired and empowered as citizens.
That’s why I am still committed to make Outdoor School for Everyone a reality. I am part of the coalition that pushing the State of Oregon to step up and fund Outdoor School again statewide. Representative Jules Bailey sponsored HB2516 to do just that. Support is strong in the Legislature for Outdoor School because legislators recognize how important it is for all Oregonians to know about the natural resources we depend on and treasure. Getting money is always a struggle but I am hopeful that with Oregon’s spirit of innovation and a little pluck, we will once again see kids from Ontario to Gold Beach, Astoria to Joseph out in the woods learning about science and life.
–I wrote this as an explanation as to why and how I dedicated 3 years to pass Outdoor School For All. And my camp name was “Canoe.”
PS: in November 2016, as a result of a citizen initiative, Oregon adopted the first statewide outdoor school program and funding in the United States.