RANDLE — More than halfway up a trail in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Angel Falls begins to seem like a myth.
During 90 minutes and just under two miles of hiking the Angel Falls Loop, a group of fifth-graders from the Olympia School District experiences hail, sunshine, trees, ferns and small caves. The students walk under the cascade of Covell Creek Falls and climb onto a cliff overlooking Burley Mountain.
“There is no Angel Falls!” Hansen Elementary School fifth-grader Robert Hunt, 11, shouts into the wilderness.
Robert and other fifth-graders from Hansen, Pioneer, L.P. Brown and McLane elementary schools spent two days last week at the Cispus Learning Center campground, located in the national forest. Olympia students have attended outdoor learning classes at the camp since the mid-1980s.
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But this year’s trip is likely to be the last to Cispus for the Olympia district’s fifth-graders. A committee of parents and district staff members is expected to recommend moving the outdoor education program to a Boy Scout camp in Capitol State Forest in Thurston County to save money.
But for this year, that wasn’t on the minds of Robert and his fellow fifth-graders as they finally got to see Angel Falls and scrambled to capture the moment with their cameras.
The hike “was very long, but definitely worth it,” Robert said later.
CUTTING THE BUDGET
The Olympia school board cut funding for the outdoor school program from the 2009-10 school year budget, but board members said they would allow the trip to proceed if parents could raise the $49,000 it costs to run the program.
A committee of parents and others calling itself Save Outdoor Schools — Olympia Kids raised more than $50,000 to save this year’s trip, but it will likely be the last. The committee will recommend at the May 24 school board meeting that the outdoor education program be moved to Camp Thunderbird, a Boy Scout camp on Summit Lake in Thurston County.
On Thursday night, the Olympia School District Education Foundation, which raises money for classroom programs, voted to take on fundraising for the outdoor program at Camp Thunderbird.
Foundation president Craig Ottavelli, who is also a member of the Olympia City Council, said the move to Camp Thunderbird would make it financially feasible for the nonprofit foundation to take on fundraising.
“It was not something that we would be able to do under the Cispus model,” he said.
He said the student fee that families pay will continue to go toward the program.
The Tumwater School District cut $29,000 from its 2009-10 budget for a similar Cispus program for sixth-graders. Tumwater parents raised enough money to salvage the program for the current year and plan to do the same next year.
In the meantime, a committee will examine alternatives to the program for 2012 and after, said Tumwater Superintendent Terry Borden.
Camp Thunderbird is a 20-minute drive from downtown Olympia in Capitol State Forest. The cost for the Olympia outdoor program at the camp has been estimated at $15,000.
“The main thing was that it was something that is really sustainable,” said organizer Ryan Hall. “If we kept it at Cispus, there would be a year that a class would not go. There is no way we could go on and on raising 50 grand a year.”
Thunderbird offers similar amenities, such as dormitories, a stage and campfire area and an eating area, plus the trails and natural features of Capitol State Forest.
The Thunderbird campground would charge the district more per student than the Cispus campground, which is run by the Association of Washington Principals. The major savings to the Olympia district would be the cost of busing 650 children for two hours each way, and the salaries of the teachers who stay overnight with the campers, Hall said.
At Thunderbird, the teachers would have the option to go home, though the principals and the school nurses would stay, she said. It will be up to the district what the program would look like, Hall added.
“We wouldn’t want to tell the school district how to run this program. It’s still the school district’s program,” she said.
The group expects that fundraising still will be necessary. Funding for outdoor education is not included in the Olympia School District’s proposed budget for 2010-11, which was unveiled last week, said district spokesman Peter Rex.
It costs an Olympia family $150 to send a fifth-grader on the Cispus trip, though families who couldn’t afford it were given scholarships.
Hansen Principal Ernie Rascon, last week’s camp co-director, said he didn’t think the program would be diminished by a change in location.
“What people want is an outdoor education, overnight experience for the kids,” he said.
Cispus today is much like it was for Chris Woods when he was a fifth-grader at L.P. Brown.
“If I’m not mistaken it was the first year it was offered,” said Woods, now the principal of Pioneer Elementary School and camp co-director with Rascon. Woods went as a student in 1984.
The Cispus outing included hikes on the Gifford Pinchot’s trails; water quality testing; and the traditional camp experiences of skits, campfire songs, dorms with bunk beds, and kitchen duty.
“What I remember most is the high school counselors, the campfire,” Woods said. “I remember making shelters, and we did water testing.”
“The kids learn a lot, but what they are going to remember are the activities and being with their friends, and being away from home,” Woods said. “It’s a rite of passage.”
Rascon, who has been on the trip about 14 times, said that during the overnight trip students bond through the shared experience, which makes a difference at school as the year ends.
“There’s more of a sense of teamwork, and that’s nice,” he said.
For some students, the outdoor education program is their first camp experience, Woods said.
“This gives them that experience and opportunity,” he said.
Kekoa Fernandez, 11, a fifth-grader at Hansen, said that while he and his family have gone hiking in wooded areas near his home and in Hawaii, he had never seen a creek rush as powerfully as Covell Creek.
“It’s so beautiful” he said as he hiked up the trail along the creek.
And he paused after reaching Covell Creek Falls, also known as Curtain Falls because of the trail that passes behind the cascade.
“Now I get it,” he said. “That’s why the river was so fast. Now I get it.”
Camp counselor Emily Metcalf, 17, a junior at Avanti High School, said the highlight as a camp counselor is seeing children have fun on the trails and experience nature.
“For me, it’s seeing them excited about being out in nature because I get excited about being in nature,” she said.
Hansen fifth-grader K.C. Lampman, 10, said the 31/2-mile hike up some steep grades built up her expectations of Angel Falls.
“I was expecting it to be like Niagara Falls,” she said. “But it was really fun to see nature and how high up you were.”
Metcalf said that for some students, the outdoor education trip is their first experience away from home and away from their parents. It was for her when she was a fifth-grader at Centennial Elementary.
“I definitely got homesick when I was young,” she said. “You just try to console them and work through it, telling them it’s just one more day.”
K.C. said she brought a special blanket to ward off homesickness.
“I was nervous because for a little while I thought I wouldn’t be able to bring my sleeping blanket,” she said. “But I was able to bring it, and I like my roommates, so it’s going to be fun.”
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