Most Summit County schools promote outdoor education component
January 25, 2016
The distinct geographic advantages of living in the Rocky Mountains, specifically Summit County, provide many remarkable outdoor activities for visitors and residents alike, just the same as the community's growing student body.
Outdoor Education elements as part of conventional teaching and learning methods are abundant throughout the county, included as early as preschool through the middle and high school curricula in the Summit School District, multiplying by the year. Summit's other school options, in particular The Peak School, a private independent school in Frisco currently serving sixth through 11th grade, and Snowy Peaks, another district high school with a nontraditional approach, have programs emphasizing the local environment, as well.
"I just really love the eye-opening experiences it provides for students," explained Morgan Moore, outdoor education coordinator for The Peak School. "There's an incredible amount of opportunities so close to us, which is humbling; and, to take the kids right out the backdoor and be right in nature, we really want to take advantage of that and tie it together back to the philosophy of the school."
The Peak School, which opened in August 2012 and received full international accreditation in June 2015, currently has 56 students enrolled and that number increases with the addition of 12th-graders next fall. As part of the Coalition of Essential Schools that stresses a progressive, holistic and critical-thinking education, the focus on the environment "goes hand-in-hand," said Moore, with Peak's comprehensive approach.
The school operates under 10 guiding principles highlighting such components as citizenship, intellectual pursuit and integrity. And the outdoor program offers an annual all-school fall camping trip, winter hut trip and spring rafting trip, each providing students a chance to apply those lessons in a real-world setting.
"We place leadership and emphasis on the kids," said Moore of the hut trip a week and a half ago. "This is not a guided experience and is very hands-on, so they're doing everything themselves. That comes with risk, but we think it's worth it and very important to have tangible, real-life experiences that you just can't simulate inside a classroom."
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Independent Thinking, Real Consequences
There are real consequences to the decisions made out in the wilderness, for instance. As opposed to choosing not to finish homework or being disorganized, where you might get in trouble but face no actual outcomes of significance outside of a potential stern talk from a parent or teacher, not prepping enough water to cook with, drink or use to clean could turn into a night going hungry or dehydrated. Forgetting your rain jacket could result in wet clothes, which could lead to discomfort or even serious sickness.
This process helps students think independently, with attention paid to risk-management, self-care, general health and collaboration in order to succeed in the face of natural life obstacles.
"Students are required to unplug, and they must work as a team to overcome challenges in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains," Liz Wood, The Peak School's communication and marketing director, said by email. "The trips seek to build community and leadership skills by pushing students (and sometimes faculty) outside of their comfort zone, developing relationships between students and teachers outside the classroom and encouraging stewardship for our Colorado natural resources."
For the hut trip, which ran Jan. 13-15, 28 students were split into two groups and chaperoned by four adults in each camp. Students met at the school the morning of departure, packed up all of their gear — including all the food they would eat, snowshoes, sleeping bags, clothes and so on — were chauffeured to the trailhead in Leadville and then hiked 3 miles to one of two huts with their 30-pounds backpacks.
Three nights and two days later, students hike back to the trailhead, emerging more experienced outdoorsmen and women and in tune with the environment around them. They are better equipped to understand the issues impacting the region and world, able to make more informed decisions as consumers and purveyors of the local surroundings.
"It's a deeper, more authentic learning," said Moore. "If you're not able to go out in nature, see trees, snow and water, then when we think about conservation and preservation and environmental issues, we don't have a tangible connection to it."
Many options, many on Board
In similar fashion, other local schools push these outdoor elements to familiarize students of all ages with their environment and the myriad opportunities it provides them. In many cases, in collaboration with the Keystone Science School — a community program teaching scientific principles and leaderships skills and celebrating its 40th anniversary in March — students of all ages in the Summit School District learn about everything from mountain ecology and water management, to how to ease the transition from elementary to middle school.
"Here in Summit County, the outdoors and environmental resources sustain our livelihood," said Dave Miller, the school's director of education and program sustainability. "Our big goal is to teach students about our backyard, and we work hard to help them understand our surroundings, how to access those surroundings and the science behind it."
Silverthrone Elementary, as another example, offers such activities as snowshoeing through Summit County Early/Head Start — a program designed to support and educate children through age 5 — in addition to a unit on the winter activity through the physical education department. At the high school, science teacher Jami "Happy" Lambrecht teaches popular twice-weekly elective courses on both fire and stream ecology.
Within these biology extensions, students participate in aspects such as learning how to fly fish, hatch, raise and release trout in addition to analyzing and indexing insects in order to understand the health of the local water bodies. In the fire-focused curriculum, participants count trees, learn the history of the forest service and take part in a forest-health assessment.
"It's real-world science, and it takes students 180 degrees away from taking notes," said Lembrecht. "It's applying it rather than learning it and memorizing it. We live in a wonderful place to do it, with such great opportunities we should be taking advantage of it."
Nature as a foundation
The thought and philosophy is the same at Snowy Peaks, where nature is actually one of the school's four founding cornerstones. As a result, the 50 full-time student program was designed, so Friday afternoons are dedicated to a nature focus, with a diverse group of activities throughout the year centering on simply getting out and about in Summit County.
Every fall, usually in September, students participate in the "Snowy Peaks Challenge," a mandatory hike to summit one of the nearby peaks. In the past, hikes have included Peak 1 outside of Frisco, Mount Buffalo, Mount Royal and Bald Mountain. The program has also taken advantage of an annual ski day donated by Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, as well as sledding, snowshoeing and visits to the Frisco Nordic Center.
"We take it pretty seriously," said Jen Wolinetz, English teacher and counselor at Snowy Peaks. "Seventy percent of Summit County is open space, and young people should have the opportunity to experience it. The connection to nature is a deeply personal experience; and, if they're not exposed to it, they can't make that decision of how they feel about what that relationship is going to be."
The geography of the mountain region and Summit County provide unmatched experiences and ability to participate in nature and the outdoors. Local schools have embraced the unique opportunities the area present to teach students from a young age about their environment and allow them to make their own choices about how they choose to interact with it.
"There is no substitute for getting outside and really reflecting on that, and the way it changes your decision-making as a human being," said Moore. "If you don't know about something, you're not going to care about it. The connection to place from the standpoint of outdoor education an environment, that can't be simulated."