Oregon Field Guide is doing a story about the history of Outdoor School – the Portland metro area’s six-day science program that gets sixth graders outside to learn about the natural world.
The program started in 1966 and now offers a unique environmental learning experience to 16,000 students a year. But it has been in jeopardy lately because of school budget cuts.
Last year, Portland Public Schools trimmed the program back to three days from six to save money. And this year, they planned to eliminate the program altogether.
But this week, the Portland School Board voted to put $150,000 toward keeping the program alive. Combined with fervid fundraising by a group called Portlanders for Outdoor School, the future of the program is looking up.
With that news fresh as of Monday night, I joined Oregon Field Guide producer Katrina Sarson yesterday for her first interview with Outdoor School founder Warren “Gil” Gilfillan, who is 89 years old.
“That’s good to hear,” he said when I told him Portland’s fall program has likely been preserved.
“If ever the world needed Outdoor School, it is now. The economic problems are overshadowing everything, but we’re headed down the road to destruction if we can’t get together and educate ourselves.”
Gilfillan worked for the Washington and California fish and wildlife agencies and as an executive for the Boy Scouts in Portland. He developed an extensive camping and backpacking program for the boy scouts and built Camp Baldwin on the east side of Mt. Hood. He also worked for the Oregon Fish Commission as a public educator before landing the job starting up an outdoor education program funded by a federal grant in 1966.
“I had four years of organizing camps, a had a natural sciences background and a lot of contacts at natural resource agencies,” he said. “So, I just flopped into it.”
He was thrilled by the salary: $12,000 a year, “but I didn’t know what my job was. It was kind of crazy to have to start this thing from scratch. I didn’t even know what Outdoor School was.”
In April of 1966, he started with a teacher workshop and recruited some natural resource experts from federal agencies.
“We borrowed them,” said Gilfillan. “And they became our staff.”
Later that spring, 500 kids attended the first Outdoor School. When he learned that the grant would soon be ending, he went on the prowl for funding to keep the program going. He took an official from the U.S. Department of Education salmon fishing at Big Creek near Astoria.
“I knew all the best fishing spots from my job with the Fish Commission,” Gilfillan said. “He caught six salmon, and that pretty much sealed it. Then we were off to the races, and the rest is history.”
For the next several years, Gilfillan and his supporters added a new Outdoor School site every year until there were five that served the entire sixth grade class in Multnomah County.
“It just seemed like the timing was perfect,” he said. “Kids were going to college and getting resource management degrees. They were graduating with degrees but no jobs, and they were eager to come join us. Everything was falling into place.”
Without fail, the kids would end the camp in tears, he said.
“That just proves they were in a learning environment that was intense and absorbing,” he said. “It was an inspiring thing. It couldn’t help but be successful.”
Gilfillan retired from the job in 1983. He said he saw down years when funding was tight and the school had to work with less money. The program’s property tax funding was discarded. And one year he, too, had to fight to keep the program from being canceled.
“It’s been a trial all the time,” he said. “But you always had everybody pulling together. That’s what made it work. You couldn’t go to Outdoor School without feeling it.”
For a while, he said, the school actually had some enemies: “People were suspicious. They thought we were communists.”
But Gilfillan said he faced them head-on.
“I would put that person in the car and take them to outdoor school,” he said. “All they have to do is see it. Once they see the enthusiasm, they change their mind.”
If more schools decide to shorten the program to three days, he said, they will lose a deeper sense of ecology that comes with the full Outdoor School curriculum.
“Our goal was to teach them how nature works – about water, soil, plants and animals and how they all have to work together or they don’t work,” he said. “If they go down to a shorter program, they can’t possibly get the integration.”
Gilfillan said Outdoor School is crucial because the world faces dire environmental problems. Population growth alone has him worried for the future.
“The human race has got a problem ahead, and we’re not teaching it,” he said. “But how do you present those problems at a sixth-grade level? This will scare kids.”