Every middle school student in the Oakland Unified School District will soon have the chance to get out into the woods as part of a three-year program unveiled last week that aims to teach kids about the natural environment.
The Oakland Goes Outdoors initiative is a $1 million, district-wide plan to get all of the city’s roughly 7,000 middle schoolers out of their classrooms and into the wild, according to district officials and their partners at Bay Area Wilderness Training.
The money, a grant from the San Francisco Foundation, will help provide training to teachers and after-school staff who will lead students on at least one overnight camping trip per year.
Participants are also able to borrow camping and hiking equipment like sleeping bags, tents and boots at no cost.
“We’re talking about enhancing the educational experience for our kids,” OUSD spokesman John Sasaki said. “And giving them a much deeper understanding that they are part of the earth and part of the environment.”
The initiative was launched last year as part of a pilot program involving a few teachers and their students. This school year organizers did a “soft launch” in October.
Currently there are 13 middle schools planning outdoor trips around the region, said Liza Dadiomov, program director of Bay Area Wilderness Training.
Many of the trips are close to home, with campers heading out to areas within the East Bay Regional Park District like the Anthony Chabot Regional Park and Tilden Regional Park, Dadiomov said.
Kids are also experiencing what it’s like to sleep overnight at places like the Presidio in San Francisco, Fort Ross State Park on the Sonoma County coast and Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“It’s totally up to the teachers what they want to do on their trips,” Dadiomov said.
Students on one recent trip learned about the “leave no trace ethic,” which encourages wilderness-goers to minimize their impact on the land by packing out everything they bring in and trying to leave the land in better shape than when they arrived, Dadiomov said.
Other teachers use the trips to give kids social and emotional learning experiences though team building and other exercise, and some teachers focus on science and ecology lessons.
This year, 1,300 middle school students are expected to participate in the overnight trips and next year that number is expected to double. By the third year of the program, the goal is to include every student on at least one trip, Dadiomov said.
“We’re hoping to be able to continue this and to be able to expand it (in the following years),” said Dadiomov, whose organization has been training teachers to lead wilderness trips for the past 20 years.
Organizers hope that the wilderness experience will stick with the students far beyond their middle school lives.
Many Oakland students have never been camping and many have never been out of an urban environment, and have never visited the ocean or the mountains, Sasaki said.
“They get to see that it isn’t just cars and buildings and streets and all that,” Sasaki said. “That our world is far more than what you see on the streets of Oakland. (The experience) helps them to become better students and better people and it certainly helps them become better stewards of our earth.”