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When the outdoors becomes the classroom

Grant money enables the charter school to incorporate the environment into the curriculum


by: KEVIN SPERL - Fourth grade students at the Powell Butte Community Charter School are in the process of building a scale-model of the Crooked River adjacent to the school's pond.

Powell Butte Community Charter School has been awarded a $6,000 grant from the Gray Family Foundation and an additional $2,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation, all geared towards getting kids outdoors.

School administrator Jackie LaFrenz said that the grants help the school incorporate the Oregon Environmental Literacy Plan into their curriculum.

"We are a place-based learning school," she said, "And, we have learned how to integrate student trips into what we are doing in the classroom."

The school submitted their grant proposals as a means for funding the school's fifth through eighth grade field studies of the Crooked River Watershed.

"We asked for $20,000 for all four grades to go into the watershed for four one-day trips throughout the year," she said.

That's only a part of the school's outdoor experience offerings.

The fifth grade takes a three-day trip to Newport Beach; sixth-graders spend five days at an outdoor school; seventh-graders stay for three days at the Hancock Field Day Station managed by the Oregon Museum of Science (OMSI); and the eighth grade class travels to Silver Falls State Park, visits OMSI and the city of Portland.

Grants may help, but it is the Friends of Powell Butte that make up the difference, making these trips possible.

According to LaFrenz, the group holds three major fundraisers a year, raising upwards of $17,000 to be used for student activities and place-based trips.

The school's exercise-a-thon on Valentine's Day contributes another $10,000.

"For this event, the students gather donations door-to-door," explained LaFrenz. "The event has been a tradition at the school long before we became a charter school and the money pretty much comes from our families."

As a part of the school's outdoor learning experience, the school has participated with the Crook County School District in the Outdoor School at Suttle Lake. One of the oldest outdoor endeavors in the state, students stay in camp cabins and are mentored by high school students and counselors from Crook County High School.

"The students take part in forestry, stream ecology, water monitoring and macro invertebrate projects," said LaFrenz, "They also hike around the lake, participate in team challenges and learn about plants and wildlife."

Afternoon recreational time, family style dining, camp fire activities and presentations by the Sunriver Nature Center fills the rest of the week, while a closing ceremony on the last day of camp finds the students preparing and presenting a skit.

"This camp represents the longest time these students are away from home," said LaFrenz. "There are lots of tears as they pass around a candle, but they have a great time and have bonded with their mentors."

For LaFrenz, outdoor learning is the core of the charter school.

"When our students grow up and go to other places, we want them to know about plants and animals in their own backyard," she said. "The best way to learn this is to extend the classroom to the outdoors."

LaFrenz feels that, when the environment becomes part of the classroom, students stay engaged in the educational process.

"With today's technology, kids are not playing outdoors," she said. "There is a disconnect between the outdoors and learning."

LaFrenz believes that middle school is the perfect opportunity to engage students in the outdoors, saying that they are old enough to want individual experiences and open to being involved in the community.

As an example, LaFrenz talked about the school's "Legacy Project."

"Our middle school students completed a project about the history of the Powell Butte area," she said. "We found people who had been living here for a long time, invited them to the school and interviewed them."

LaFrenz was happy to see people from the community come into the school and sit with the students to tell their story, saying that it brought down a perceived barrier between the community and the school.

Just like the barrier she wants to see disappear between her students and the environment.



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