By Abby Spegman • The Bulletin

In Crook County, sixth grade is a rite of passage: It is the year students go to Suttle Lake Camp outside Sisters, away from parents and the comforts of home. There’s scientific inquiry by day and songs around the fire at night.

The district’s outdoor school program is one of the oldest in the state. But to send every student for five days costs about $65,000 a year for transportation, lodging, food, supplies and teacher stipends. The district cut funding in years of budget cuts following the Great Recession, and teachers had to raise the money to keep it going.

“That’s what happened across the state with outdoor school,” said Lori Meadows, who co-directs the program and teaches at Crook County Middle School.

She is among a group of local educators and advocates who have joined a campaign to fund outdoor school for all Oregon students. The push comes after lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a measure to support the programs, but with no money attached.

Senate Bill 439, the Outdoor School Bill, tasked Oregon State University Extension Service, along with teachers and camp leaders, with creating an outdoor school curriculum consistent with the state’s education standards.

“Yes, they think it’s a great idea, but ultimately it comes down to money,” said Charlie Anderson, a former teacher who now runs Camp Tamarack outside Sisters.

Oregon’s tradition of outdoor school goes back nearly 60 years. Teachers say apart from academics, outdoor school gives students self-confidence and leadership experience. But with no state support, districts, schools and the camps that host them are largely responsible for the curriculum, administration and funding. According to the Oregon Outdoor Education Coalition, today fewer than half of Oregon students participate in overnight programs.

Organizers say to send every fifth- or sixth-grader in Oregon for a week of outdoor school would cost $22 million. They plan to push lawmakers on funding in the upcoming short session. If that doesn’t work, they are also collecting signatures for a ballot initiative in November 2016 asking voters to dedicate $22 million from the lottery fund to outdoor school.

Caroline Fitchett, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said lottery funds are meant for education, conservation and economic development and outdoor school ticks all three boxes. Her group estimates funding for statewide programs would result in 1,000 full-time jobs in rural Oregon.

The group is also looking at public-private partnerships that could offer sustainable funding. It will hold a fundraiser at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Neil Kelly Design Center in Bend.

Camp Tamarack’s outdoor school runs three days. Students learn about natural resources — plants, fire and water — through investigations and hands-on experiments led by camp staff. They stay in cabins with high school volunteers and work in the mess hall. There’s canoeing, archery and crafts; deer, raccoons and wood ducks.

This is third year the camp has offered outdoor school, hosting fifth-graders from Bend-La Pine and Redmond and sixth-graders from Madras. Sisters, like Crook County, runs its own outdoor school for its sixth-graders.

Camp Tamarack’s outdoor school costs $175 per student. Some districts fundraise or contribute to bring the cost down, and Camp Tamarack gets grants and donations to lower the rate for school with high rates of students on free or reduced lunch.

“Ultimately the parents at the end are asked to pay some amount, from school to school that will vary,” Anderson said.

In Crook County, outdoor school costs $300 per student. Parents are asked to pay $100 toward that cost and there are scholarships for those who cannot. This year the district will cover the rest; in the years that it didn’t teachers organized fundraisers and applied for grants to keep it going. It was overwhelming at times, said Meadows, the co-director.

She attended the program as a student back at Prineville Junior High School, then as a counselor, now as a teacher. Her camp name: Meadowlark.

“We were able to keep it going because our community thought it was a great program and it’s gone on for so long — we have three- and four-generation families that have gone,” she said. “We have a lot of people who are really invested and believe in it. That’s why our program still happens.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. In the original version, the date for an upcoming Oregon Outdoor Education Coalition fundraiser was incorrect. It is on Tuesday, Oct. 27. The Bulletin regrets the error.

— Reporter: 541-617-7837, aspegman@bendbulletin.com

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