Gorgie Jones-Hoisington cupped the moth tightly in both hands as she rushed over to show her teacher, Chris Schulze, at Buck Creek Camp in the Umatilla National Forest.
Field studies had just wrapped up Thursday afternoon at Pendleton Outdoor School, where roughly 90 sixth-graders were given an up-close look at the environment from local experts. Jones-Hoisington, 12, used what she learned to correctly identify the moth she caught earlier as female, based on its size.
“Those are good moments,” Schulze said as Jones-Hoisington hurried to her next activity. “It makes you proud as a teacher.”
Outdoor School is an annual rite of passage for sixth-graders in Pendleton, as well as fifth-graders in Hermiston, as they head out into the forest for several days of hands-on activities and adventure. The program brings kids to Buck Creek, adjacent to the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness Area, for three days of hiking, campfires, art projects and interactive science.
Schulze, who teaches science at Sunridge and used to help coordinate Outdoor School for the district, described it as a seminal experience for middle schoolers.
“It’s the one thing they remember,” he said.
About 20 students from Pendleton High School, many of them Outdoor School alums, serve as camp counselors along with the teachers who accompany their class. Everyone wears a homemade wooden name tag, and are split up into groups named after animals — such as the owls, or the bears, or the eagles.
Launched in 1971, Pendleton is home to the longest continuously run Outdoor School in Eastern Oregon, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The program has nearly been eliminated at least three times, the last coming in 2011 when the district was forced to cut 21 teaching positions and lop 10 days off the school year.
The community united to save Outdoor School, with parents and businesses nearly doubling their fundraising goal of $15,000. Now the program is back in the district budget, costing around $22,000 per year including food, transportation and teacher stipends.
“You get the feeling people would give their right arm to help Outdoor School,” Schulze said.
Voters also approved a ballot initiative last year that calls for $20 million in lottery funds to pay for Outdoor School for 50,000 students statewide, though the Legislature may delay that funding as it works to pass a balanced state budget.
Regardless of where the money comes from, Schulze said the program is a worthy investment.
“These experiences can awaken something in kids they don’t forget,” he said.
All 250 sixth-graders from Sunridge will participate in Outdoor School during May, arriving on a Wednesday and staying at the camp through Friday. The curriculum includes field studies, where students learn about things like plants, wildlife and water quality. Buck Creek serves as the backdrop, flowing into the South Fork Umatilla River as it cuts through the dense, green forest.
Other activities include art projects and trying new recreation activities, like boating or archery. By Friday, the kids will be ready to tackle Buck Mountain, a steep mile-long hike that provides a panoramic view at the top.
“A lot of kids, they never see that. They never experience the top of a mountain,” Schulze said.
Jones-Hoisington said the camp is like a big sleepover with her friends and classmates. The activities teach them about teamwork as well as nature, and why it is important to protect the environment, she added.
“In the future possibly, we won’t even have forests,” Jones-Hoisington said. “The trees give us air, and protect the animals living here.”
John Summerfield, a social studies teacher at Sunridge, has been helping to coordinate Outdoor School for 10 years. He remembers the program as a sixth-grader himself, attending school in the Gresham-Barlow School District, where they stayed at Camp Howard along the Sandy River.
“Kids are out in nature, getting a great experience and a variety of different opportunities to appreciate the outdoors,” Summerfield said. “This is a sixth-grade rite of passage.”
Taking a moment to admire the surroundings, Schulze said there is nowhere else kids would want to be to learn.
“Most kids would rather be active and outside, touching things,” A room with four walls does not always suit them.”
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.