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    Big Investments by a Small Foundation Take Outdoor School Statewide

    November 17, 2016
    by Nancy Bales

    Editor's Note: We are thrilled to highlight the victory of the "Outdoor School for All" campaign in Oregon with this post from Blue Sky steering committee member Nancy Bales.

    On Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, while voters across the country were taking part in an historic Presidential election, Oregon voters were making history of another kind: by a wide margin, they passed a citizen-initiated ballot measure that, for the first time in the United States, provides state-level funding for outdoor education.

    Oregon Measure 99, “Outdoor School for All,” dedicates $22 million from the Oregon lottery to send every 5th or 6th grader in the state to a full week of outdoor school. Working alongside countless committed partners, the Gray Family Foundation contributed our statewide network of environmental educators, garnered from our years of support for this work in Oregon, and financial resources to seed the effort and grow the network of support.

    Though not big, the Gray Family Foundation has long been the largest private supporter of Outdoor School, a science-based outdoor education program with a long history in Oregon. The program, which began in the late 1950’s as a weeklong, place-based educational experience, spread throughout the state, becoming a rite of passage for our sixth graders and a shared experience that ties Oregonians not only to our land, but to each other.

    However, during the past few decades, budget cuts have led to a steep decline both in the number of Oregon youth able to attend the program as well as the length of time they are able to stay. Even more concerning, wealthier private schools continued to attend in greater numbers and for longer periods, while schools/districts with high numbers of underserved kids were not able to sustain the program. Grant funding was not sufficient to close this gap.

    Along with other advocates, we wanted to find a permanent answer to the problem of diminishing attendance and perennially uncertain funding for Outdoor School; a state-level solution that would give equal access to all students, regardless of background or geographical location. So in 2015, Senate Bill 439 was introduced in the Oregon Legislature.

    One of the interesting features of this legislation is that it doesn’t prescribe a top-down, one-size fits all approach. Instead, the bill, which passed into law in July that year, outlines general guidelines and educational content for the programs to insure quality educational experiences, allowing for each school district or educational service district to structure the program in a way that meets local needs. But, while the Oregon Legislature passed the “Outdoor School Law,” they did it without identifying a funding source to ensure the program could be implemented.

    However, like our kids out there in the field, we didn’t give up – we dug in and explored the territory! The benefits, as shown by research, were just too great for our kids to give up.

    “There is a place for every child at Outdoor School. Everyone feels successful because everyone, in some way, is challenged to grow and become better and stronger, or to look at things in a different way. The focus on team building and working together helps teach not just confidence, but also empathy and leadership skills.”— Kathleen Jeskey, 6th grade teacher

    Gray Family Foundation felt that, by “going all in” and providing major funding and strategic advice throughout the initiative petition and campaign effort, as well as functioning as a liaison to state agencies, we could have a significant impact on the effort, strongly influencing the chance for success while making major strides toward achieving our vision for Oregon.

    Our [cheeky] coalition of outdoor education advocates, which included community organizations, nonprofits, and businesses, decided to launch an initiative petition to place the measure on the fall ballot to fund the already-passed Senate Bill 439 by asking Oregonians to commit unallocated Oregon lottery funds for Outdoor School. 

    Outdoor School is a popular program in Oregon. Opposition to the campaign was limited and focused on a potential loss of economic development funds. In the end, Oregon voters spoke loudly and clearly: Outdoor School for All passed, with a whopping 67% in favor.

    “It’s important that [kids] understand what our resources are, how they can be managed, and how they can be protected so that they can make good decisions, as citizens and as thought leaders going forward.”— Anne Starker May, 4th generation owner of Starker Forests.

    Now, every single child in Oregon will have the opportunity for the same access, giving each child significant outdoor experience in order to gain an understanding of the importance of our natural world and natural resources. Not only will whole generations of kids acquire knowledge about applied science and environmental stewardship, they will learn to explore and to think creatively about science, which will help solve the complex and societal problems that we face.

    “Outdoor School educates children with the power of nature instead of being cooped up in a classroom all day for six hours” —Noah M., a student attendee.

    Shared experiences, like that of Outdoor School, also help to bridge social divides; by learning to work together with varied groups of students, Outdoor School attendees are fostering community and creating an engaged citizenry.

    “At the end of the week, a beautiful confession was given during our final dinner as a cabin. What the transgender student confessed shocked the whole table. She explained to our cabin that she was glad she got paired with us since she had never felt accepted in her whole life and the group welcomed her better than her own family.”— Ariadna Falcon Gonzalez, Student Leader

    Outdoor School—the unique public/private outdoor educational program that is customized to local needs and wants, yet has statewide standards for content and quality—is an innovative approach and one we are proud to have helped come to fruition. And it is now a reality, due in no small measure to a small foundation with big goals putting a significant portion of their resources behind a time-tested program that dovetailed nearly perfectly with our values. Our sincere hope is that Oregon’s commitment to an Outdoor School program is only the first of many throughout the United States. 

    Nancy Bales is the Executive Director at the Gray Family Foundation, a supporting organization of The Oregon Community Foundation. She stepped into her role in 2014 as the foundation made this significant commitment to a political advocacy approach to support their vision. Previous to this, she spent eleven years at Ecotrust, a regional nonprofit that works to advance social equity, economic opportunity, and environmental well-being.

    Tags: education

    Thank you so much, Gray

    Thank you so much, Gray Family Foundation!!!! The community of Milton-Freewater is very grateful for the outdoor education opportunities made possible by the Foundation. We are very excited about the Outdoor School legislation and the surely unforgettable experiences that will be made possible because of all the hard work and dedication of the Foundation!!!!

    Thanks, Graham. We are

    Thanks, Graham. We are thrilled that every Oregon child will have the opportunity to attend outdoor school. Thank you for your support!

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