While many students in the country have started the year staring at computer screens, many kindergarten through sixth grade students in Lake County School District (LCSD) are learning in a hybrid model, blending in-person instruction two days per week with outdoor experiences two days per week. LCSD began a four-day school-week calendar this year. 

About 77% of LCSD’s kindergarten through sixth grade in-person students this semester are participating in the outdoor experiences. 

On “outdoor days,” students visit the 100 Elk Outdoor Center in Buena Vista to participate in activities that include high ropes courses, rock climbing, canoeing and eco-hikes. Students also work on “at-home learning packets” assigned by LCSD teachers, and completed with support from 100 Elk staff. In order to keep the cohorts separate, student arrival and dismissal happens on county-owned recreation facilities near each LCSD school. 

“At a time when so much focus is on managing students’ physical safety in the school environment, we have leveraged outdoor spaces and experiences to prioritize a different type of safety — social-emotional safety,” Becca Katz, community learning director for LCSD and Get Outdoors Leadville! (GOL!), explained. “Through this program, students are able to just be kids. They’re hugging trees, zip-lining through the forest, climbing rocks, working together on team building initiatives and just running around outside with giant grins. Even though their grins are covered by masks, we’ve achieved unconventional learning and a degree of unfettered fun at a time when it’s so important and hard to come by.” 

The 100 Elk experience is part of LCSD’s “Second Day Supports Program” which is designed to accomplish three goals: 

The first goal is to provide a safe, reliable childcare option for families on the days their students are not in the classroom. 

The second goal is to support students as they do their at-home learning assignments.

And the final goal is to support students’ social-emotional well-being throughout the pandemic, a time when LCSD parents have lost jobs, social distancing has caused isolation and loneliness and some students have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

“I am very grateful for all the support that they gave us with homework and working outside with our children,” Viridiana Marquez Velez, the mother of two LCSD students, said of the program. “The support for children and parents was so great that I would like this program to continue at least a little longer. It is so nice to see our children happy to do so many activities outdoors and especially the support with work, since many parents have a hard time helping our children with homework.”

“From my teacher perspective at an Expeditionary Learning (EL) education school, I love that the 100 Elk program provides students with opportunities to practice some of EL’s design principles, such as ‘collaboration and competition’ and ‘success and failure’,” Lake County Intermediate School teacher and parent Aly Beery said. “To me, this program is an ideal complement to our school days, and I believe that my child as well as my students are more engaged and excited about their fall during these uncertain times, partly because they have the social-emotional learning and challenging, physical outdoor education provided by 100 Elk.”

The Second Day Supports Program is a product of partnerships — in implementation and in financing.

LCSD staff who normally work with GOL! and Project Dream were reassigned to carry out the Second Day Support Program. They trained 100 Elk staff in district practices including “crew habits,” COVID-19 prevention and academic support. 100 Elk, on the other hand, brought a 1,100-acre mountain campus, facilities, staff and a unique blend of programming to the table.

Other logistics, like food and transportation, are provided by LCSD. The support program is made possible by funding from LCSD’s and Lake County Government’s CARES Relief Fund.

“It has been incredible to see our partners come together to create such a valuable experience for our students that addresses both their social-emotional and academic needs,” LCSD Superintendent Bethany Massey said. “I am grateful for the hard work of all of the individuals involved who have persevered in navigating the challenging logistics to make this happen for our kids.”

According to Katz, starting the school year with a higher dose of time in nature is a logical fit for LCSD, given the district’s past investment in outdoor fieldwork. Nature-based experiences were deemed particularly important at the start of this year, given LCSD’s hybrid approach to in-person schooling.

“The mounting evidence demonstrating the value of nature-based experiences to support learning and well-being made time outdoors even more compelling,” Katz said. “The pandemic has forced a lot of creative thinking across the country — spending more time outdoors was an obvious solution here. Perhaps every school year will start with this much time in nature.”

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