Anne Marie Untalan, Michael Becker, and Ashley Sprouse, developers of the HRMS Outdoor Classroom Project.

Anne Marie Untalan, Michael Becker, and Ashley Sprouse, developers of the HRMS Outdoor Classroom Project.

CLEARING: What have been the most difficult issues in getting this project started?
Michael Becker: One of the Permaculture Design Method principles is to start small, and I highly advocate for starting with small projects that you can have initial success with. Trying to get space is often a hurdle, and if you can show that you have managed a small space efficiently and generated student interest and outcomes you’re more likely to be able to expand. It’s important to have a sense of where you’d like to go in the future but be focused on what you can do today.

CLEARING: What’s your approach to seeking outside funding support?
MB: Funding is a tricky process. As funders get savvier in this area they are looking for a high chance of success. Grants that can show what you have already accomplished with limited resources are more likely to be looked at closely than great ideas with no basis of momentum. Be focused on developing your local base of support, both technical and financial, because that local and in-kind match is key to bigger grants down the road. I look at grants and project development in a pyramid model, the base of support has to be huge compared to those peak funders at the top. The goal is to have it all set up and ready to go so the funders can see that their resources will get the ball running.

CLEARING: What impact does your program have on student behavior?
MB: When working with students, a new ethic has to be created. What does it mean to be outside? Is this just another recess? Clear expectations of what garden behavior looks like are crucial. We call it our “professional” behavior. When we have visitors, or are working outside in view of other teachers, administrators and students there is a different behavior standard. Kids are able to see the value, freedom, and opportunity this can create for them, but it must be, to use a gardening term, “cultivated.”

CLEARING: What do you say to teachers who worry about their ability to lead outdoor learning projects like this?
MB: Not all teachers have background or formal training in these types of activities and at first it can seem like a huge amount of work and a distraction from what we’re supposed to “cover.” As classrooms transfer to a more project-based model, often teachers discover that they actually have more time to work with individual students in a one-on-one scenario because the class has a sense of purpose that keeps them moving forward and allows for a gigantic amount of differentiation. Again, starting with small projects is valuable for future success. Starting too big can lead to burn out on the project before it might yield all that it can. It is crucial that teachers feel supported by their teams and administrators to get programs going.

CLEARING: What are some of your other keys to success?
MB: It’s very important to build a parent and volunteer support network. Search out local expertise and interest to build a crew that can help in the heavy lifting often involved to begin even small projects. Create a sense of community and connection to the project through work parties and celebrations. Try to get some press in the early stages to bolster support and build pride about the work being accomplished. During our week of Outdoor School it requires around 1500 hours of volunteer effort to pull it off smoothly. Parents look forward to the adventures their children will have at the middle school level and are psyched to help out.

CLEARING: What does the future hold for the project?
MB: In the spring of 2008, Hood River County voters graciously approved a bond measure that will allow for major refits and additions at all schools in the district. The Hood River Middle School project directly connects with our five year effort into sustainability science. Working with Opsis Architectural of Portland, the district has developed plans for a separate music and science building on the middle school campus. The building has been designed to achieve LEED Platinum levels of energy efficiency and uses cutting edge technology to produce a building that functions not only as a place to contain students but as a functioning scientific lab.
The district is entering into the “Living Building Challenge”, a design standard that would require the building to catch its own water, generate its own electrical needs on a grid-tied net-zero basis, and deal with waste water on site. Students have been involved in the design process, working with architects and engineers, and will be the primary operators of the system once it is completed. This new building will use many recycled components from an existing structure on campus that had to be removed due to its age.
Attached to the new science classroom will be a grant funded, 1000 square foot glasshouse conservatory to increase lab space and garden productivity. Students will be involved in year round food production experiments including aquaculture, and passive solar season extension. Surrounding the new building will be a highly productive perennial foodscape producing food and craft materials for projects through the school year. In the plan there are new larger spaces for garden beds and an increased footprint for the native plant arboretum.