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In an educational landscape where most of the chatter is around larger class sizes and the removal of programs due to budget cuts, it can be easy to overlook the positive things happening in public schools. Mount Baker School District has chosen to take a proactive approach to create opportunities for its students even as funds from the legislature are lacking for them and many other districts across the state.

While doing something extra for the students is financially challenging and more work for teachers and administrators, sitting idly by would not be the Baker way. So, to create new learning opportunities for kids, the Mount Baker team looked to the outdoors and local organizations. Through a program named Connections, the elementary schools of Acme, Harmony, and Kendall partnered with local organizations Common Threads, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Wild Whatcom, North Cascades Institute, and Camp Saturna to integrate outdoor education into the curriculum. Other partners for outdoor access include Whatcom County Parks and Whatcom Land Trust.

Nash learning about outdoor recreation while climbing a rock wall at Camp Saturna. Photo credit: Tony Clark

The Connections program began at Kendall Elementary and has grown into all three of the Mount Baker School District elementary schools, encompassing grades K through 6. With a few years of experience under their belts, the school district’s hard work has turned into benefits that reveal themselves year after year.

“It’s different from sitting in the classroom. You can move around, you feel a little bit freer; you’re touching things, it’s more hands-on. It’s much more engaging,” says Mount Baker School District Super Intendent Mary Sewright. “Kids and staff realize that engagement is very different from just sitting in the classroom. Not that that isn’t important, but it’s more engaging outside, plus the ability to enjoy the world around us.”

By creating a curriculum combining classroom learning with getting outdoors, students learn everything from life skills to scientific theory using real-world applications in a varied environment. “In school, kids have their little groups they hang out with,” Sewright says. “Outside, they all interact with each other differently, in different groups.”

Jadyn (left) and Kaylee (right) at Mountain School in North Cascades National Park. Photo credit: Erin DeRoco

The younger grades, kindergarten and first graders, do their learning on campus with Common Threads. In-classroom learning focuses on the seasons, plants, and animals’ life cycles, and then students witness these subjects outdoors in the school garden. Common Threads and students of all grade levels maintain these gardens. In addition to feeding their brains, the students get to feed their bodies as they try foods from their school garden or other food brought by Common Threads. It is common for children to be trying a particular vegetable for the first time.

The 2nd and 3rd grade classes work with the Wild Whatcom EdVentures Program doing scientific observations in nature and studying local ecosystems and local habitats. In this program, the students get off campus — rain or shine — and literally get their hands dirty. Studying plants, animals, and insects allows them to operate like field scientists with some hands-on learning.

The 4th graders work with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement raising salmon from eggs in an aquarium. As the salmon grow, students learn in the classroom about salmon and their habitat before heading out on a a field trip to observe the salmon being released.

Common Threads’ Katie Chugg talks to an Acme Elementary fourth grade class before they get to work in the garden. Photo credit: Tony Moceri

Camp Saturna hosts the 5th graders with two-day camps that include learning about the Mount Baker foothills, ecology, and environmental science. While some students regularly get into the foothills that can be seen their playgrounds, for many this is the first time getting this experience. Outdoor recreation is also integrated into these off-campus days.

The 6th graders get to venture into the North Cascades National Park, going to Mountain School at the North Cascades Institute. This three-day, two-night excursion is action-packed, where kids learn about regional ecology, environmental science, and public lands. Sewright overheard a kid say that her time at mountain school was “the best day of her life.”

Currently, Connections is only in the elementary schools, but Seawright is working with her team to expand the program to all grade levels. Funding is the big issue for maintaining and expanding the program. The program did recently get a chunk of funding through 2025. While it won’t cover it all, the Mount Baker staff is working to make up the balance by writing grants and partnering with local organizations.

Ike shows off his bow and arrow skills at Camp Saturna. Photo credit: Tony Clark

While Mount Baker works to expand the Connections program to all grade levels, a team effort between parent groups, the district, and the FFA program provides additional outdoor educational opportunities. These include field trips to Snow School, Padilla Bay Research Reserve, and Snow Goose, among other things.

Sewright is pleased with what she has seen from the program so far and is excited to do all she can to keep outdoor education going and expanding. “It’s important because it helps kids make connections to the world around them. It’s easily integrated with the learning they do in the classroom and makes it more meaningful.”

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