The Toronto District School Board is taking 60 per cent of its teachers out of outdoor education. It has to. The funding formula imposed by the Mike Harris Government is so rigidly focused on teaching behind the four walls of a traditional school, that the board had no choice but to reassign the teachers to regular classrooms.
To its immense credit, the board is going to keep 13 centres open, eight of which offer five-day residential programs, and five of which offer single-day programs. The board says that all students will continue to have at least two single-day visits, and one five-day residential visit during their times in elementary and high school.
Fifteen teachers will remain at the centres, and to replace the twenty-two being reassigned, the board will bring in « paraprofessionals’’ — outdoor specialists and interns who will earn about a third less than the teachers.
In its scrimping and scratching to find ways to reduce its outdoor education budget, the board also decided to charge a $10-a-day user fee to students (estimated to raise $1.1 million a year), to end a $700,000-a-year contract with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, and to terminate a $400,000 annual lease with the Toronto Association for Community Living for a centre on Shadowntake. The moves will lop $2.9 million, or 26 per cent, from the budget.
Under previous governments at Queen’s Park — Conservative Liberal, and New Democratic — school boards were allowed the flexibility to create programs such as this. In 1965, the Conservative Government, with John Robarts as premier and William Davis as education minister, amended the law to allow boards with more than 10,000 students to buy properties outside their areas for education centres.
In the ensuing years, Toronto-area boards took advantage of the opportunity and, until the Harris Government began micro-managing education and restricting funding, their centres thrived.
A good example is the Boyne River Natural Science School, located on 166 hectares near Shelburne, with the Bruce Trail meandering through it. Owned by the Toronto board, it began operating in 1973 and to date has had about 110,000 students attend.
Its often difficult to assess the impact of such a centre, but the Boyne has been the subject of a 1998 masters thesis at Wilfrid Laurier University completed by Roy Cumming, a teacher at the centre.
He sought out students who had attended the school between 1973 and 1986. His findings underline the folly of shortchanging outdoor education. He questioned 125 students who came from 73 schools in the old City of Toronto, and represented all grades from grade 4 to grade 13. The students were as random a collection as possible — although not statistically random because he couldn’t find enough former students to make random choices.
Thirty-six per cent of them had rarely, if ever, been to the country before going to the Boyne. All the students recalled their visits, even 25 years later. And, says Cumming in the thesis, the results point out that the Boyne had a very strong positive impact.
« A foundation was built providing background attitudes, skills, and knowledge that allowed (the former students) to develop a responsible lifestyle.’’
That seems a big conclusion to reach for people who had only two one-day visits and one five-day visit. But Cumming stresses that impact depends not on length of time, but the learning experience. And, « The more senses there are involved, the greater and deeper the learning will be.’’
The mission statement of the Boyne is, itself, remarkable, given that only recently has research confirmed that all living things share most of the same genetic components, in differing arrangements. It says the school is « To help people realize their kinship to the planet earth and to live responsibly on it.’’
Teachers at the Boyne, says Cumming in his thesis, taught « any topic in any subject, as long as most of the teaching (was) done out of doors.’’ However, « a component of all programs (was) also environmental education.’’
So learning came through using examples from nature. No wonder it was so powerful. No wonder it should be valued and continued.
NEXT WEEK: Night hikes