Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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End of an education era

POLK COUNTY - After a decade of offering local students close encounters with nature, Polk Soil & Water Conservation District will no longer offer its outdoor school program.

Educational opportunities like studying aquatic life in the field are all but gone with the end of outdoor school.

Photo by Pete Strong

Educational opportunities like studying aquatic life in the field are all but gone with the end of outdoor school.

January 14, 2014

POLK COUNTY - After a decade of offering local students close encounters with nature, Polk Soil & Water Conservation District will no longer offer its outdoor school program.

Karin Nembach, Polk SWCD's manager, said the decision, made after the program was held last school year, was difficult for the organization's board.

"We value that program and education highly," she said. "We are looking to come up with ways … to keep educational programs as part of what we do."

Sadly, ending the outdoor school program had become a financial necessity.

"We weren't able to secure funding to sustain the program on its own without the Polk SWCD contributing a large amount of subsidized help," Nembach said.

Outdoor school had over the years been held at the Oregon 4-H Center in West Salem or Camp Attitude near Sweet Home.

The multiple-day camp gave students the "summer camp" experience while offering lessons on a surprising number of topics, including seminars on fishing, all types of wildlife, and even wilderness survival.

Karina Newbeck and Kim Desmarteau, sixth-grade teachers at Talmadge Middle School in Independence, have taken their students to outdoor school for eight years.

"They get to experience what it is like to live and work as a group; they learned camaraderie, have the opportunity to fish, learn survival skills, and learn about conservation and the environment," Newbeck said. "It is difficult to put what all students learn into words."

Desmarteau added that for many students, it is their first experience camping.

"They get to learn outdoors in fresh air for the first time," she said.

Lisa Wittbrodt, Talmadge's sixth-grade special education teacher, said learning that takes place at the camp is some of the most valuable her students have all year.

"For my kids, hands-on learning is the best way they learn," she said. "Those hands-on opportunities are far and few between. This was one way to provide that for our students."

Talmadge has not found an option to replace Polk SWCD outdoor school.

While outdoor school has ended, Polk SWCD isn't abandoning its other educational programs. Any seminars taught at outdoor school could be offered through a field trip or classroom presentation. "Fish in the Classroom," a program in which students raise hatchery fish at school and eventually release them into the wild, will continue as well.

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