SONORA — 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.
Its a rite of passage, said Director Pam Ivie, who helped shepherd the center through all its 20 years. Its something held in common by most young adults here. Its 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 whats 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 well be doing less of what I call the drag and brag: Heres 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. Its 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. Its 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 Im 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 countys 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.
• 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, Howd you get the Milky Way here? They dont 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. Its 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, thats pretty phenomenal.
I guess thats why we do this, Ivie said quietly.