CORVALLIS, Ore. – The new statewide Outdoor School program, approved by Oregon voters last November, has a new leader and a new pipeline for funds to flow to school districts and education service districts to pay for youth outdoor education programs.
The new program will provide at least three consecutive days of outdoor education to Oregon’s fifth- or sixth-graders as part of their school experience, said Kristopher Elliott, a science educator who was hired by Oregon State University Extension to lead the program. An Outdoor School may run as long as six days and may include overnight stays.
Last November, voters approved Ballot Measure 99, designating funding for Outdoor School programming for school districts and education service districts (ESDs) to serve fifth- or sixth-grade students in Oregon. The 2015 legislature had already charged OSU Extension with administering the statewide program when funding became available. In July of 2017 the legislature approved $24 million for the program’s first two years.
Elliott, who holds a doctorate in science education from Oregon State University, said his fifth-grade outdoor education experience was a pivotal influence in his life. “I was from a small town in the Sacramento Valley, and I had the opportunity to spend five days on the northern California coast,” he said. “We took night hikes through the redwood forests. I experienced a tide pool for the first time, and I learned the names of the organisms that lived in it. I want every young person to have that kind of experience.”
Outdoor educational experiences were common for Oregon’s middle-schoolers in the 1960s and ‘70s, but recession-related funding cuts and property tax limitation measures forced many school districts to reduce or cut their outdoor programs.
“Our task now is to support, to the maximum extent possible, all school districts and education service districts that would like to provide Outdoor School programs for the 2017-18 school year,” said Elliott.
The funding process, outlined on the Outdoor School website, requires two steps, Elliott explained. First, school districts and ESDs must enter into an intergovernmental “master agreement” with Oregon State University. Many districts have already completed their master agreements; those that haven’t may request the forms by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once the master agreement is complete, a funding application must be submitted. These will be made available by the first week in October to districts that have completed their master agreements. Districts must submit funding applications by Nov. 14. OSU Extension will review applications and notify districts of funding by December.
School districts and ESDs are free to design their own outdoor curriculum, Elliott said, as long as the instruction meets the educational goals set forth in the 2015 legislation.
“We know some districts may not have a lot of experience in developing outdoor education,” he said. “During the first year, we’ll try to connect these districts with others that have more-established programs. The Outdoor School team will continue to deliver more resources as we fully implement the program.”
Elliott received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cal Poly. He has been a high school agriculture teacher and advisor to FFA chapters. Most recently he directed STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education programs in the Nashville, Tennessee public schools.
OSU Extension is developing Outdoor School’s administrative structure and fund-distribution mechanism with help from a diverse advisory committee that includes the Gray Family Foundation, Straub Environmental Center, Women for Agriculture, Oregon Forest Resources Institute, school districts, interested citizens and other community partners.