{child_flags:featured}When the classroom is outside

{child_byline}By Anna Lynn Winfrey

A nearly 10-acre site adjacent to the Montrose County School District’s main offices will soon be the site of students and teachers learning al fresco.

The plans for the ADA accessible site have been established and construction is underway. The district is currently hosting a series on-site feedback sessions with students of all ages to hear their ideas for the site.

“Our main focus right now is going out and talking with members in our community, especially young people,” Keely Vaughan, the center’s program director, said. “We’re holding some student design sessions and really trying to capture the voice of these people: not only so that we can build programming to meet their needs, but so that we can really build authentic, joyful, shared experiences, which is at the center of our mission.”

The district is aiming to begin offering programming this November and open a forest preschool next fall.

One of the first programs is an “Adventure With Me” course for parents and Pre-K children to go on immersive nature walks on the campus or at Riverbottom Park.

“Adults at home [can] learn to watch their kids build that relationship with nature and ask their kids questions, so that the kids are learning to really take some healthy risks and explore the world around them,” Vaughan said.

Eventually, they hope to start a full K-12 outdoor school at the same site.

In addition to prospective opportunities for full-time students, the district is also planning on after-school and summer programs, as well as regular opportunities for students enrolled in other district schools and homeschooled children to learn outside.

Vaughan emphasized that they want to ensure that the school is accessible to all students and families who want to participate.

An extensive body of research suggests that outdoor learning has a plethora of short- and long-term benefits for children, from stronger interpersonal skills to improved physical health.

Plans for the San Juan Center for Outdoor Education were first conceived in October 2020, when the district had the opportunity to apply for a RISE grant with the state of Colorado. The grant application encompassed two main elements: a program for social-emotional well being and the outdoor learning center.

Although the district did not win state funding for the outdoor learning center, district leadership decided to move forward with plans.

Dr. Jessica Beller, the district’s director of instructional services, said that the district recognized how important the project was to the community.

“When we got notified that we didn’t get funding for that piece [of the grant], we couldn’t let go,” Beller said.

The district has moved on and found other sources of funding for the project. Montrose County donated stone and gravel for the grounds and the City of Montrose supplied the funds to purchase three large-scale teepees and two yurts from the Colorado Yurt Company.

Beller said that the district is aiming to work with as many local- and Colorado-based businesses as possible.

The district also applied for — and received — another state-based grant for the initial phases of the project, and also to hire the people that are spearheading the project.

Keely Vaughan was a teacher at mostly non-traditional schools for 14 years before she moved out to Montrose for this job. Vaughan is the program director for the center.

“I’ve always been really passionate about building schools, non-traditional schools and programs from the ground up, so I feel very lucky to be able to do this and couple it with my own passion for the outdoors,” Vaughan said.

Kiersten Brown, who will be the center’s program coordinator, learned leadership skills in outdoor education programs while she was a student. Although her teaching experience is in a traditional classroom, she folded in the lessons from learning in the field.

“I was very intentional in my own classroom about integrating outdoor-based and place-based learning, but I always wanted to see it on a grander scale,” Brown said.

K-12 students interested in participating in the next feedback sessions on August 11 or 25 are requested to RSVP at bit.ly/SanJuanCenterRSVP.

Editor’s note: the San Juan Outdoor Learning Center has been renamed “Outer Range.”

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Anna Lynn Winfrey is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.