JeffCo Outdoor Labs Program On the Chopping Block

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3min 46sec

Deep cuts to the state’s education budget may shutter a half century old program in Jefferson County. Generations of Jeffco students have attended Outdoor Lab Schools in idyllic country settings. But with major deficits looming, the relatively expensive program is on the chopping block. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus has more.

A dozen kids stand in a line holding bows and arrows. This is not your typical class setting. But then again, the Mount Evans Outdoor Education Laboratory School is not your typical school.

Teacher: Alright, you guys ready? Pull it back, take a deep breath, and shoot.

A couple arrows hit the targets...but most miss horribly. Despite that, Falcon Bluffs Middle School student Blake Campbell is having fun.

Campbell: I’ve never tried it before, so it’s like a new thing to me, and I really enjoyed it. Ben: better than being in the classroom? Blake: Yeah, totally.

Principal of the school, David Epp, says it’s definitely more fun...but also educational. Here, the students are applying key science principles like kinetic and potential energy. Things they’ve learned in the classroom.

Epp: And then kids can experience that, that’s what we say when we mean experiential hands-on learning. Their not just words and drawings on a white board, they actually experience it. And that’s where students at all levels really understand things is when they experience it.

The other part of the experience is the setting. The Mt Evans Outdoor Lab sits on more than 500 acres near Evergreen...a 40 minute drive from Denver.

Epp: I’ve only been out here a year, my first year here, best year so far of my educational career, but maybe the shortest, hopefully not.

Epp is referring to the district’s plan to cut the program--forcing the community to foot the 1.5 million dollar annual bill if they want to keep it going. One student who’d like to see it continue is Courtney Collins who also goes to Falcon Bluffs Middle School.

Collins: Because in a classroom you don’t really get to experience all the wildlife here, like we saw some dear. And you get to see all the different rocks and trees and in a classroom it’s just a desk table and floor.

Collins isn’t the first member of her family to attend the Outdoor Labs. Her grandfather was here forty years ago.

Collins: And he said he really enjoyed it and that I was going to have a lot of fun, and he was right.

Palmer: In sixth grade it was kinda like a right of me.

Collins’ grandfather Mike Palmer laments the cuts to education...not just to Outdoor Labs, but everything.

Palmer: I think if you don’t pay for education and things like that, sports, you’ll pay for corrections.

About 7-thousand kids spend a week at the outdoor lab each year. Of all the programs in the district, why cut this one...which seems so popular?

Stevenson: Well, there isn’t anything in the district that someone doesn’t love.

Cindy Stevenson is Superintendent of Jeffco Schools. She says the district is cutting nearly 40 million dollars from the budget this. That’s on top of 13.5 million the year before, and more than 3 million the year before that.

Stevenson: So I think as a state Colorado needs to decide, is this the way we’re going to operate? And if this is the way we’re going to operate, and we’re not going to bring in additional revenues, then school is going to be a very different place.

Stevenson announced last month that Outdoor Labs would have to be self-sustaining. Since then, a community foundation has been scrambling to raise the 900-thousand they need just to keep it open for the coming school year. But it's far more than they've ever had to raise...and they only have until June to prove to the district they can come up with the money.

[Photo courtesy of Outdoor Labs Foundation]