Forest campus turning a new leaf with change in science standards, longtime leader

naustin@modbee.comMarch 28, 2014 

NA Outdoor school 1

Foothill Horizons outdoor education program Director Pam Ivie holds a Swainson’s hawk with an injured wing that was adopted by the forest campus near Sonora on Tuesday.

NAN AUSTIN — naustin@modbee.com Buy Photo

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com
  • IF YOU GO

    WHAT: Spring Open House at Foothill Horizons

    WHEN: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., April 26

    WHERE: 21925 Lyons Bald Mountain Road, Sonora; for map, call Maureen Kelley at (209) 532-6673

— As sure as spring turns to summer, Foothill Horizons is facing a seasonal change of sorts. With the retirement of its founding director and a shift in science standards, the outdoor campus that so many former sixth-graders fondly recall starts a new chapter this summer.

“It’s a rite of passage,” said Director Pam Ivie, who helped shepherd the center through all its 20 years. “It’s something held in common by most young adults here. It’s part of the social fabric.”

Ivie steps down July 1, when director-in-training Jessica Hewitt will take charge.

The team of Ivie and naturalist Hewitt is reworking what’s taught at the 140-acre campus of forests, streams and trails, aligning with Next-Generation Science Standards. A video explaining the program to Spanish-speaking parents is now online. Pre- and post-visit materials for teachers will be the next focus, Hewitt said.

“We were already in line with Common Core, using discussion and hands-on lessons,” she said. “Now we’ll be doing less of what I call the drag and brag: ‘Here’s a tree. Let me tell you about the tree.’ 

The change will shift more to what Hewitt calls “habits of a science mind,” asking kids to think things through on their own. “Teachers are recognizing as valuable instruction the questioning, kids discussing their own observations. Common Core is alive. It’s different, but in a great way,” she said.

Sixth-graders from Carroll Fowler Elementary in Ceres got such a lesson on the food cycle last week in the campus garden. Their assignment: Find the cycle.

“I like how much fun (learning) is,” said Ceres High junior David Reyes, who was helping out for the session. “The hikes, getting to use their hands. It’s more interesting.”

“You get to learn more,” summed up sixth-grader Tony Arias. This was his first time in the mountains.

Fowler teacher Donna Clarke said much the same thing. “The discovery – I’m seeing that inquiry first, having to think, observe, make judgments based on evidence. This is such a wonderful place for that,” she said.

Ivie said one thing she hears from teachers is how much they learn about their students. “It changes the relationship. (Students) see the teacher in a whole different light, as in ‘You wear jeans?’ ” she said with a laugh.

Rick Bartkowski, grandfather of several “squirmers,” said the outdoor classroom allows those who struggle in classrooms to shine. “The observations, the endless ‘Why?’ questions – it really frees their imagination,” said Bartkowski, assistant superintendent of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which runs the center.

The facility is one of about 20 county-run camps across the state, Ivie said. It pays its own way, with school programs contributing roughly a third of its funding. The rest comes from parents sending their kids for a week of summer camp and from facility rentals for weddings and conferences.

About 5,000 out of the county’s nearly 8,000 sixth-graders came for three-, four- or five-day stays at the facility last year, a percentage that shrank during the recession. Some schools relied on parent fundraising to keep the program alive, but new funding and a focus on learning by doing could open the door for more to experience Foothill traditions.

Traditions like:

• The top step of a rebuilt sky tower draws gasps as students see stars against a pitch-black sky for the first time. “They ask, ‘How’d you get the Milky Way here?’ They don’t see it at home,” Hewitt said.

• A compost pile in the garden smells like decomposing plants, for many a first introduction to “what happens to dead things.” Bartkowski said, “You can show pictures of composting, but add smells to it and the light bulbs go on.”

• Feet tiptoeing into a mountain stream feel a gritty bottom, telling a tale of erosion; bring an up-close look at skittering water creatures; and get a shiver earning membership in the Polar Bear Club.

• Campfires come with songs, stories and mountain lore.

But while sharing the natural world comes with wonder, it has its challenges as well. Ivie said some of her greatest memories were when storms wreaked havoc and teamwork saved the day. A huge windstorm knocked out all power, and staffers jerry-rigged safe candle holders so kids could eat dinner. When a snowstorm brought down phone and electric lines, they used school bus radios to reach schools and tell them all were safe.

“Even the high school students, it was like they skipped a grade, learning about values and responsibility,” Ivie said. “It’s not just the kids that go above and beyond here. Adults find their best selves.”

Ivie said one of her proudest accomplishments at the center was to adapt it for a full range of students. “The program extends to every child. We have children in wheelchairs, autistic children, all children, because inside, that child is the same child,” she said.

Hewitt picked up the thread: “When you have an autistic child say ‘I love you’ and smile, that’s pretty phenomenal.”

“I guess that’s why we do this,” Ivie said quietly.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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