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Aaron Wilcox can see the positive influence that being a member of the Montrose High School climbing team has had on his eldest daughter. Not only has the experience helped her find positive role models and a sense of community, but it’s also given her a passion for the outdoors.
Despite the Montrose County School District’s (MCSD) proximity to the Western Slope’s vast and diverse terrain, Wilcox, a Spanish teacher at Olathe High School and a father of three Hispanic daughters, knows firsthand that not all kids in the area have that same access to recreation opportunities. Nearly 40 percent of the school district’s students are Hispanic, and he says those kids often have a hard time even finding people who look like them in the outdoor space.
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A new outdoor education center, which was developed by MCSD and opened earlier this month, aims to change that. The ADA-accessible campus, known as Outer Range, includes three teepees, two yurts, and a two-classroom building, dubbed the Lodge. It sits on a 10-acre parcel that is next to the Uncompahgre River and is speckled with Siberian elms and wavering cattails. “A huge component of our mission is to offer this program ubiquitously to all students and families. This is not an elitist or specific programming for a specific population,” says Jessica Beller, the executive director of academic services at MCSD. “We want kids to know how to safely interact with the land, move within their limits, and seek education pathways, so they feel comfortable accessing the outdoors.”
In order to do that, Outer Range will put on a variety of after-school, weekend, and summer programs that cover topics ranging from geocaching and water studies to backpacking and ice climbing. Next fall, the Outer Range Alpine Start forest preschool, which is currently being built on the campus, will also debut. (The area is considered a child care desert.) The National Wildlife Federation’s Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) program is currently assisting with the licensing process and program development. Older students—up to seniors in high school, including any home-schooled kids in the area—will even be able to register for experiential, expedition-style elective classes at the Outer Range campus in the coming months.
The Outer Range curriculum is based on a risk continuum that encourages kids to comfortably ease into new activities and environments. “When we start anything new in life and in the outdoors, we take on new levels of risk. If we can show students how to take that first step and risk, they can comfortably move into the next step and trust that they can go further,” Beller says. This month’s inaugural after-school program is a prime example. Elementary school students will start by getting comfortable with snowshoe equipment on mulch pathways around the campus, before working up to a day trip to a nearby trail.
The program also tries to avoid prescriptive outdoor experiences. “It gives kids the chance to do the outdoors the way they want and define their own success.” says Wilcox, who was involved with planning for the campus. “We do not want Hispanic people to change their culture and do hobbies they don’t want to do. We don’t want to force a marketing scheme.” That means considering social and cultural factors that often determine the Latinx community’s desire to engage with public lands, including being able to have communal outings with large groups of family and friends, as well as the ability to speak Spanish.
Colorado isn’t the only state pairing the positives of outdoor opportunities and public education. Five Town Community School District in Rockport, Maine, and Falmouth Public Schools in Massachusetts have launched similar programs. Since 2016, the number of available forest programs has doubled to nearly 600 nationwide, according to Natural Start Alliance. “COVID-19 opened our eyes,” says Beller. “When people are landlocked, they find ways to entertain themselves outside. When they don’t know how to treat the land, it can be a nightmare. We want kids to be good stewards to protect the land for generations to come.”
Wilcox knows that, at the very least, more kids will be supported in their pursuit of outdoor endeavors the way his daughter was with the climbing team. “I’m excited,” he says, “for the program to open up that pathway to mentorship, a sense of community, and a connection for kids of all backgrounds and ages.”