Philomath Outdoor School

Kayla Smith, center, then a Philomath Middle School student, stretches out to tag a classmate while playing a game that reinforces the students' camp names in 2014. The school has a tradition of offering outdoor school to sixth-graders

A new voter-created program that makes lottery dollars available to Oregon schools to fund overnight outdoor school programs for students in the fifth or sixth grades has received fundraising requests from schools representing 76 percent of eligible students.

Kristopher Elliott, who administers the distribution of these funds for the Oregon State University Extension Service, said the goal of extension service staff was to have a 45 percent participation level this year. Because of the high level of funding requests, Elliott said the program will have to spend more of the $24 million allocated to it for the 2017-19 biennial budget this year than expected.

Despite this, he said the program should be able to fund all the requests this year and next. However, he said it could be a challenge next year if schools that requested funds for a three-day outdoor school program this year expand their requests to the full five days for which they are eligible. If that happens, he said the extension would have to adjust their funding formula.

The 76 percent participation rate represents over 36,000 students, Elliott said.

Elliott, who started in his role as the outdoor school program leader in September, said the extension faculty has been helping in reviewing applications.

“Though it caused extra work for us, we do it with smiles on our faces. Seeing the overwhelming response from our schools is so exciting,” he said.

Elliott said the extension has an advisory board working on the program and has seven resource groups working on issues for support that the extension is offering to schools doing outdoor school. The groups are focused on specific topics, like curriculum development or identifying sites for outdoor school programs. Eventually, Elliott said there will be three more people working under his supervision in Corvallis and three more around the state in extension offices.

Elliott said extension staff across the state have helped in getting the participation rate so high by communicating with their local school districts about how the funds are available and assisting with crafting funding requests.

The ballot measure that created the outdoor school program in 2016 tasked the extension service with administering the outdoor school program, and it allowed the extension service to keep some of the money allocated to the program to cover the costs of administering the program.

Elliott said the extension expects 80 percent participation next year, and he’s excited so many students are being reached already.

“It’s reassuring we’ve communicated well and have reached the right people,” he said.

Brenda Downum, communications coordinator with the Corvallis School District, said the district has applied for funding for all 550 fifth-grade students in the district to be able to attend outdoor school for three days this school year. She said this represents about $150,000 in expected funds. If the district is awarded less than that, it would make up any gaps with its own budget so all kids in the district could participate without schools having to raise funds. In recent years, district outdoor school programs have been funded by parent groups, so not all schools have had equitable access to it, she said.

Steve Bell, principal at Philomath Middle School, which has a longstanding tradition of offering outdoor school to sixth-graders, said the school has applied for funding. He said the biggest change is this allows the school to not have to work as hard to raise funds to support the program as it traditionally had.

“We did host our big event, Turkey Bingo, which has become a fun Philomath Schools tradition," Bell said. "If we receive full funding from the grant, we will be using the funds raised at Turkey Bingo in a different manner. At this point, we are hoping for substantial funds from the grant, but until we are awarded any funding, we are not making any substantial shifts to our practice and planning for outdoor school beyond the reduction in fundraising efforts.”

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Anthony Rimel covers education and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.