WA House bill would expand outdoor education statewide

OLYMPIA — For many Washingtonians, a week spent learning in the forest is a treasured memory in grade school.

Outdoor education programs originated in Washington state, with the opening of an outdoor school near Ellensburg in 1939, according to Outdoor Schools Washington, an organization founded in 2021 to work with officials of state public instruction to increase opportunities for outdoor residential programs.

The learning model has since spread across the country, but access to these programs is far from equitable.

A bill passed by the Washington House in a 92-6 vote Saturday seeks to expand outdoor school programs to all fifth- and sixth-grade students in the state. He is now heading to the Senate.

House Bill 2078 would establish the Outdoor Educational Experiences Program, to support the development of outdoor programs, as well as provide opportunities for secondary school counselors. It would be also creating the Outdoor Learning Grant Program, which would allocate grants to school districts and outdoor school providers.

the the statewide outdoor education initiative comes after almost two years of virtual learning, and as test scores plummet and young people experience record rates of burnout and mental health issues.

“COVID has certainly shown us that students, among others, need opportunities. They need to get out, they need to be entertained, they need to feel the fresh air,” said Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, SB 5925.

But HB 2078 offers students more than just a way to reconnect with nature throughout the pandemic lockdown. Outdoor learning has They have been shown to have enormous developmental benefits, from improving social and emotional skills to promoting community and connectedness. Learning in nature also helps students develop their curiosity and appreciation for the scientific processes in our environment, the bill’s supporters say.

“I have seen time and time again children who struggle between the four interior walls of a classroom come out, learn in nature, and their eyes light up,” said the principal sponsor of the bill of the House, Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine. .

If approved, the bill would make funds available to allocate grants starting next school year to school districts to increase their ability to access outdoor programs, as well as competitive grants for outdoor school suppliers to increase the capacity of their facilities. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates that it would cost $22.5 million a year to send students on a three-day outdoor educational trip and $35 million for five-day experiences.

Both programs in the bill would receive partial funding from the $10 million US federal bailout allocated to OSPI to support pandemic-related learning loss.

The Washington State Outdoor Schools Study, commissioned by the state legislature and reported by Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research, found inequity in student access to outdoor schools. He also found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds benefited the most from outdoor programs and that universal access to publicly funded programs would reduce financial barriers and increase attendance.

According to outdoor educators, and supported by the study, the biggest barriers to expanding access to outdoor education are program capacity limitations and lack of resources. School districts pay for programs to have their students come visit, but these are often funded directly by parents, either through APEs or travel expenses. It may also be the responsibility of teachers or principals to be strong enough to ensure that their schools participate in outdoor programs.

Resources also vary across Washington’s geographic boundaries.

Some of the bill’s supporters hope to pollinate the state with elementary school children, sending children from the coast to learn about agriculture and inland environments, and college students from eastern Washington. to learn more about oceans and forests.

Megan Karch, legislative co-chair of the Washington Outdoor School Coalition and CEO of IslandWood, an outdoor camp on Bainbridge Island, said school districts across the state should also invest in outdoor programs directly in their own communities.

“What we’re looking for is to make outdoor education a must-have, not a fun-to-have,” Karch said.

The legislation is modeled after Oregon’s statewide outdoor education program. In 2016, voters approved a ballot measure to set aside funds from the state lottery program to provide all fifth and sixth graders in Oregon, including home-schooled students, a week of outdoor learning.

Rex Burkholder, who led the Oregon initiative, addressed lawmakers on Jan. 25 in support of Washington SB 5925. According to Burkholder, before the pandemic hit, up to 97% of eligible Oregon students were participating in outdoor programs — which he says is strong support from parents and caregivers. educators.

Hilary Franz became Washington Public Lands Commissioner in part, she said, because of her own childhood experiences with outdoor education that inspired a lifelong love of nature. . In her testimony for both versions of the bill, she pointed to another benefit of increasing students’ access to their environment.

“We are finding it harder and harder every year to be able to hire the experts and scientists we need…everything from marine science to our foresters, even our forest fire and forest health experts” , Franz said. “The earlier we can create that pipeline and that passion, the easier it will be.”

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