CAMP TADMOR — It's a Thursday morning under clouds the color of tarnish, and sleet is falling from the sky in icy clumps.
Welcome to Outdoor School. For 170-some Sweet Home sixth-graders at Camp Tadmor about 10 miles southeast of Lebanon, it doesn't get much more outdoorsy than this.
"You guys were supposed to wish for sun, not snow!" calls Angela Clegg, the Watershed Education coordinator for the South Santiam Watershed Council, as she leads a group of poncho-covered students into the main camp lodge to regroup for their next session.
In the Pacific Northwest, it can rain in June as easily as in March, but even Clegg acknowledges she's never led an Outdoor School over slush-covered trails.
Still, it's outdoors. And while some of the Sweet Home students say they'd rather have a more summerlike experience, few say they'd prefer to be back in their classrooms.
"I still like it out here, even if it is snowing," says Jazmine Jordan, 12, a Sweet Home Charter School student.
Jazmine is in her second day of Sweet Home's three-day Outdoor School program. She had her first experience fishing on this particular morning, and caught — for a few seconds, anyway, before it wriggled off the hook and darted away — a small rainbow trout.
"It was kind of scary. The fish was moving so much. It made me kind of nervous because it was moving around so much," she recalls.
She figures she's much more likely to go fishing again now that she's had a chance to try it, but she's not interested in keeping a catch. "I just wouldn't eat them after I saw them alive in the water," she explains.
That's the beauty of Outdoor School, she agrees: "I get to do a lot of things I'd never do in school."
How we got here
Sponsors of Ballot Measure 99, which Oregon voters passed in November 2016, had just that experience in mind.
Led by the campaign Save Outdoor School For All, the measure created an Outdoor School Education Fund, using revenue from the Oregon State Lottery Fund. The fund is administered by the Oregon State University Extension Service and is designed to provide all public school fifth- and sixth-graders in the state with an Outdoor School program up to a week long.
Outdoor School is a field trip, with multiple overnights, that immerses students in science experiences centered on the environment, natural resources, economic development and careers related to all of the above.
It's been a long tradition in Oregon. Research by the Oregon Community Foundation found the program dates to 1957, when Professor Irene Hollenbeck of Southern Oregon University organized an outdoor science experience with the Medford School District. The first formal Outdoor School program began a year later in the Crook County School District, and soon spread throughout the state.
Organization — and budget support — was hit and miss, however. Some school districts participated for five days each year, some for three, some one year but not the next, and some not at all.
By 2008, an OCF-commissioned study found only 4.4 percent of fifth-graders and 37.6 percent of sixth-graders were participating in residential, three- to five-day outdoor school programs each year.
Save Outdoor School For All urged voters to create a steady source of funding to make the experience available to all.
The mission since its inception has been simple, the group posted on its website: to "get our next generation of leaders off the couch and out into Oregon’s great outdoors.
"Oregon is a stunning tapestry of natural wonder and natural riches," the group wrote. "Our challenge as Oregonians is making sure it stays that way. How do we inspire and equip the next generation to be the leaders we need?"
Not everyone agreed Measure 99 was the answer, however. The Oregon Economic Development Association and State Sen. Betsy Johnson both objected in official arguments submitted to the Oregon Secretary of State's office.
The economic association contended the bill hurts Oregon families by permanently diverting Lottery funding away from economic and business development
"Every year, Oregon continues to give smaller portions of lottery revenues to economic development and job creation, though it was the very reason Oregon voters created the lottery in 1984," it wrote. "While the Oregon Economic Development Association supports the intent of helping youth connect with our natural resources, Measure 99 ... will have the effect of 'killing the goose that is laying the golden eggs' for communities and families across Oregon."
Johnson was more blunt: "Measure 99 is not Outdoor School for All," she wrote. "It’s another Camp Bureaucracy, which this state already has enough of."
Where we're going
Johnson is correct about numbers, at least for the first year of funding under Measure 99: Not everyone is taking part in Outdoor School.
However, the numbers have exploded since the 2008 OCF study. Kris Elliott, who is administering the program through the OSU Extension Service, said he's confident 76 percent of eligible fifth- and sixth-graders — more than 36,400 across the state — will have participated by the time school wraps up this summer.
By Elliott's count, about 7,100 students from 82 schools are participating in Outdoor School for the first time ever this year, thanks to M99.
Considering the Extension Service had set a first-year participation level goal of just 45 percent, Elliott considers it a success. But that creates a funding complication: The first biennium's funding of $24 million was set at that 45 percent expectation, so the program's having to dig into its second year to cover the bills.
Next year, Elliott said, he's anticipating even more schools will sign on once they see how this first round has gone. And some of the school districts that applied for three-day camps, like Sweet Home, may ask next time for a full week, further straining available funds.
"That's the challenge," Elliott acknowledged. "The good news is it also makes the case for letting legislators and stakeholders know we're ready for the full allocation of funding."
That full allocation, Elliott said, is $42 million and should cover everybody. That's important, he said, because otherwise Oregon is right back where it started: with teachers holding candy bar and pizza fundraisers to scrounge up a program here and there. That creates a divide between the haves and have-nots, both in terms of districts and in individual kids, which is what M99 was trying to avoid in the first place.
Research indicates regular outdoor experience helps lead to decreases in school discipline problems, better school attendance and higher academic achievement, Elliott said. The OSU Extension Service is trying to gain data from Outdoor School to see whether that pattern holds.
"We want to do longitudinal studies and look at students over time, follow them, 'Does this connection to nature sustain itself past middle school?'" he said. "We're ready to hire a research assessment coordinator on our team to lead that work and really collaborate with other researchers throughout the state and at OSU and school districts."
As rich as Oregon is in outdoor resources, not every youngster grows up with regular experiences in hiking, camping, fishing, canoeing or other excursions into the wild.
Having those experiences, researchers and educators say, teaches kids to love and respect nature, and to learn ways of preserving it as well as to use its resources for economic development and recreation. Without those experiences, that future is less certain.
“Outdoor School is a very powerful experience for students," said Amy Lesan, Elementary Schools coordinator for the Corvallis School District, where Garfield, Franklin and Mountain View fifth-graders are experiencing Outdoor School for the first time this year, thanks to M99.
"The school board, district leadership and our community are passionate about real-world, experiential learning," she went on, "and we are excited to offer this opportunity to all fifth-graders."
Up at Camp Tadmor on this Thursday, Sand Ridge Charter School teacher Amanda Treichler is celebrating the opportunity to offer Outdoor School to her sixth-graders for the first time.
Measure 99 made the difference, she says. "As a charter school, it wasn't necessarily something we could afford on our own."
Sand Ridge, part of the Lebanon district but a sister school to Sweet Home Charter, brought 28 sixth-graders in all. Some were leery of the idea at first — two overnights? In cabins? With my classmates? — but in the end, Treichler said, the only ones not to join in were the ones who got sick or had a pre-existing commitment.
Classroom lessons on forestry and ecology, provided beforehand by Angela Clegg of the South Santiam Watershed Council, helped spur excitement. Treichler says she thinks Outdoor School also is a good experience for teachers.
"This is my first time out here, too. It's beautiful," she says, from inside the main lodge surrounded by Camp Tadmor's towering Douglas firs. "I get to know my kids differently, too. Especially the more reserved ones — you see them open up a lot more."
She hopes, she says, her students will take away appreciation for the beauty of their surroundings — "because this is their backyard" — but also more of a willingness to try something new.
The 13 stations at the three-day school include places to try archery, fishing, orienteering and fish and wildlife biology. There's a "Be Prepared" station where they can practice search and rescue techniques. There's a Nature Art station where they can create decorations with pinecones. There's a Forest Management station where employees with Cascade Timber Consulting lead lessons on how to evaluate the number of board feet of lumber in a given locale.
Even for youngsters with plenty of outdoor experiences, there's something to learn. At archery, for instance, Natalie Harriman, 12, of Sand Ridge Charter School says she's from a bowhunting family but has never tried shooting an arrow herself. Classmate Jade Mulka, 12, says she's seen her father fish but this is the first time she's cast a line.
At Aquatic Ecology, a group of students from Holley and Oak Heights say they recognize dragonflies but were surprised to learn they maintain their familiar winged form for only a couple of weeks.
That's why clean water is so important for developing larvae, volunteer David Jones tells the ecology group, holding up a picture of a mature dragonfly. "This guy needs to live for seven years just so he can become a dragonfly for two weeks and look like this."
Freddie Seiber, 11, of Holley says he likes to camp with his family but has loved the opportunity to do so at Outdoor School with his friends. Games have been the best part so far, he says (teamwork and bonding opportunities are another important part of the lessons of Outdoor School, according to organizers).
"I really do like it, and and first I didn't want to come," he says. "The only way I can describe this camp is fun."
Cell phones and other electronic devices are taboo at Outdoor School, and Aytra Waggoner, 13, of Hawthorne Elementary School says that's how it should be.
"I'm glad we came, because we're outside instead of being in a classroom. You're not looking at a screen all the time, and you're learning from a direct person."
Classmate Kaydence Kistner says she agrees.
"Even though it's been snowing and cold," she says, "you can have fun."