This spring, almost 500 students from eastern Oregon school districts participated in Outdoor School at the IMESD’s Buck Creek location. School districts included Pendleton (260 students), Milton-Freewater (140), Athena-Weston (46), Union (26) and Burnt River (6). While the Buck Creek facility is offered by the IMESD to all of its 18 component districts, some districts travel elsewhere for Outdoor School.
At Outdoor School, for every four to six students participating, one to two high school counselors are assigned to the group. District coordinators for each school organize and regulate the program. Donald Davis, coordinator for the Milton-Freewater Unified School District, discussed how much he enjoys being a counselor and seeing firsthand how beneficial the experience is for students. “The best part about being the coordinator is seeing the excitement on the students faces as they experience new things. Knowing that we created an opportunity for students to experience new things and gain new exciting experiences for the first time is very rewarding,” Davis said.
School districts throughout eastern Oregon have been taking part in Outdoor School at Buck Creek since the early 1970s. In the inaugural year, only a couple sixth grade classes from Pendleton participated. One year later, twelve different sixth-grade classes made the trek into the Blue Mountains for a week. The Kiwanis Club was in charge of the land for the first few decades.
In 2001, the IMESD took over the lease of the property and is now the leaseholder of 654 acres of land from the United States Forest Service. One side of the acreage abuts the wilderness, and the other three sides are adjacent to federal forest land. Outdoor School accommodates up to 120 students at a time and the sessions usually range from three to five days. Boys are typically housed at the Buck Creek facility, while the girls sleep at the nearby Corporation facility. The IMESD contributes roughly $10,000 annually toward maintenance and operating costs, making sure it is fully functioning for the students. Dr. Mark Mulvihill, superintendent for the IMESD, stated that the focus is on the students and “since the ESD has taken it over, the site has really improved.”
In 2017, Measure 99 passed in Oregon, providing additional funding for Outdoor School. The IMESD hired Bob McMillan as a coordinator to help facilitate Measure 99. McMillan provides communication and leadership to the various school districts participating in Outdoor School. Not all districts utilize the facility at Buck Creek, but all receive guidance from McMillan. According to McMillan, “You can learn a lot in the classroom, but getting out in nature and learning in the outdoors is something you can’t replicate in the classroom.”
Activities at Outdoor School include: art projects, hiking, fishing, rafting, environmental education, campfires, cooking on hobo stoves, archery, singing songs and performing skits. Students are also responsible for cleaning, setting tables, learning dining hall manners, making their beds, gathering wood for the campfires among other tasks.
According to Mulvihill, the future of Outdoor School to grow and continue to be an educational experience for students is very promising.