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How a Public School-Private Outdoor Learning Partnership Supports a Hybrid Learning Model

A school district at one of the highest elevations in the United States found a unique solution to how to hold in-person classes in the time of COVID-19; incorporating a hybrid learning model and the creation of a partnership that continues to evolve to meet the needs of students.

Oliver Taylor navigates the ropes at 100 Elk Outdoor Center during the Leadville School Districts 2020-2nd Day Support Program. Image by Becca Katz.

The Challenge

The Lake County School District was trying to find a way to bring elementary school students back this fall for in-person learning; the school is building a new elementary school, which isn’t yet done, so there is no space to spread out inside.

It decided to divide its schools into student cohorts, and it began school in the yellow– caution – learning mode. The “A” cohort of students go to in-person classes two days a week on Mon. and Wed., while the “B” cohort attends in-person class Tues. and Thurs.

That left the question, in this hardworking community where most families have two working parents, of where the students could go the days they were not in the classroom?

The solution was a matter of 2,186 ft.and 29.5 miles

Lake County School District, based in Leadville, Colorado sits at an elevation of 10,151′. Buena Vista, where 100 Elk Outdoor Center is located in Chaffee County, sits at an elevation of 7,965′. They are 29.5 miles apart.

The solution to how to support Lake County kids became a  creative partnership between the school district and the 100 Elk Outdoor Center in Buena Vista.

The school developed a plan it calls the 2nd Day Support Program. The arrangement has each student cohort group alternating spaces: spending half of their school days when they are not part of an in-person class, and the other two days in an outdoor, all-day program.

Leadville School District students learn ladder work at 100 Elk Outdoor Center during the 2nd-Day Support Program. Left to right: Jerrline Lujan, Marlene Trejo Rodriguez. Photo Becca Katz

“The solution meets students’ social-emotional well-being and academics while meeting critical childcare needs,” said Lake County School District & Get Outdoors Leadville Community Learning Director Becca Katz. “For months the students have been so isolated. This is an innovative way to return to school full time while keeping students safer and supporting academics and social-emotional wellbeing.”

Each day buses from Lake County School District would bring one of the student cohorts to the center, from West Park Elementary (K-2) and Lake County Intermediate(3-6). Once there, their full day of activity and learning included a range of outdoor instruction in ropes courses, hiking, climbing, teambuilding training, archery, and kayaking, interspersed with outdoor classwork and tutoring.

The opt-in program has been popular: 77 percent of Kindergarten through 6th-grade learners opted in.

Mikka Squyers and Julio Arreola Marquez grin behind their COVID-19 masks while attending the Lake County Schools 2nd Day Support program at 100 Elk Outdoor center in Buena Vista. Photo by Rachael LePoidevin.

“Our general premise was that our community was going to need to start school in a hybrid model to do any kind of in-person learning,” said Katz. “Leadville already has community support for lots of outdoor learning – funding from GOCO and their Great Outdoors Colorado activity. Not just that, but outdoor, nature-based learning coincides without the district’s educational emphasis on hands-on learning field experiences.”

2nd Day Support Program for Lake County School District, organized with 100 Elk Outdoor Center. Alijah Rivera working on the Giants Ladder activity/Photo by Rachael LePoidevin.

The program came about with a nudge from 100 Elk Outdoor Center. “As a district, we didn’t have the resources, not the staff or the facilities to pull this off, but we wanted the students in the learning environment at least four days a week and we wanted them to have academic support,” said Katz. ” So we started looking at partnerships.

“Our camp schedules were affected by COVID-19 this summer, so we ran a day camp for locals from Leadville this past summer, said 100 Elk Outdoor Center Executive Director Brooke Morehardt.

Tree hugging, as children express their delight at learning in an outdoor environment of the Lake County Schools 2nd Day program at 100 Elk Outdoor Center. Image by Rachael LePoidevin.

“I knew that different schools were trying to come up with ways to open and we knew that outdoor education was valued there, so I called Becca. I said ‘Hey, during our normal season, we do programming fall and spring for schools all over Colorado and New Mexico. Although those are normally overnight programming – we could do more locally. We problem-solved – and it worked.”

The Rewards

Katz says Lake County’s admiration for what 100 Elk has brought to their school district is immense.

“They brought the energetic, young staff, an amazing facility, and great programming and merged it together with us. We trained their staff in academic habits and COVID practices. The details we had to work out together: we worked out food service and busing and enrollment and our meds details and special ed support … We brought the academic assignments from their teachers so one hour a day students were working on their actual learning.

“Children overwhelmingly have had a blast,” said Katz. “One little girl who was climbing looked down at me and said ‘I am having so much fun – you can’t believe it!’”

Parents say their kids have loved the program. One mother said “The 2nd Day Support Program provides a fun, educational, and safe environment for my child on the days she is not at school. It’s a great opportunity for her to be outdoors, continue her learning, and socialize with her peers.”

A Leadville Schools student maneuvers on the high ropes course during the Lake County 2nd Day Support Program at 100 Elk Outdoor Center. Photo by Becca Katz.

When it started, the partnership was to be a four-week program. It proved so popular that it was extended to six weeks and wrapped up this past week. But it is not ending there.

Katz says the program is such a positive addition to the school district’s approach to COVID-19, that Lake County School District is continuing the program in Leadville through the December school semester. It will continue to be done in coordination with 100 Elk, with involvement from Great Outdoors Colorado, and another community program known as Project Dream, which has gotten grant-funding.

Matthew Berhardt, of the Leadville School District, attending the 2nd Day Supports Program at 100 Elk Outdoor center in Buena Vista. Image by Becca Katz

Details are still being worked out, but Katz says this program continuation will likely be set up in administrative school buildings, with administrative staff moving off-site.

The staff of 100 Elk Center will begin commuting on Oct. 19; four days a week to Leadville to continue teaching the kids within their cohorts.

“We had no shortage of staff who wanted to continue teaching the kids,” said Morehardt. “It means around 18 of our employees have jobs that continue to December. We’re providing them their lodging, they are now under contract to the school district directly and the students can continue their adventure training. It’s really a great partnership.

“It’s a win-win for everyone, especially our students,” said Katz.“This is one of those silver linings … Lake County and Leadville are already experienced at collaboration. The basis for this was already established and 100 Elk is the new player. But in a small town, we have to be pretty scrappy, and reliant on each other. This has been a logical outgrowth of our long-term efforts on outdoor learning.”

Featured image: Crew time for Lake County students attending a Second Day School Support program at 100 Elk Outdoor Center in Buena Vista. Photo by Rachel LePoidevin.