After a day of learning last month, Nyssa brought students to the beach south of Newport to play. Pictured here from left are Jacob Gonzalez, Kira Nulle, Mazy Stringer, Jose DeLeon, Jr., and Mia Gomeza. (Jayme Fraser/ Malheur Enterprise)

NEWPORT – Isaiah Garza and other Nyssa fifth graders lined up knee deep in the Pacific. 

They turned their heads back toward the approaching waves. As one swelled and broke behind them, the race to shore started. 

“You run away from the waves and try not to get caught,” Garza said, explaining his favorite part of his first day at the ocean. 

Some screamed in joy as they ran. The waves chased them, pushing a few kids giggling into the shallow water. Teachers stood nearby and a couple joined the evening race.

The beach trip last month capped a day of whale watching, museum visits, aquarium tours and geology lessons. It was the third day of a five-day Outdoor School trek for the Nyssa kids. 

“We usually don’t do this. Like, ever,” Evelyn Arcarda said.

They were among the more than 36,000 Oregon fifth and sixth graders who left their classrooms to learn in forests and caves or at the seashore this school year, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service. That’s 76 percent of the students in those grades at public schools statewide. 

“Through new state funding, that includes about 7,000 new students and 80 schools that previously had not participated,” said Kristopher Elliott, who runs the state’s Outdoor School Program through OSU. 

In Malheur County, state funds supported excursions for Adrian, Four Rivers and Nyssa students this year. Vale and Harper have applied for next year’s program. 

Oregon has a long tradition of outdoor learning. The first middle school programs started in the 1950s and spread to nearly every county within 20 years. But districts cut or eliminated their offerings as private donations dried up, recessions hit or voters limited property taxes. In 2016, two-thirds of voters approved Ballot Measure 99 to spend a slice of state lottery proceeds on outdoor school programs. 

This was the first school year that money was available. All 151 school districts that applied were granted a total of $8.9 million. The Extension Service, which manages the money and helps schools develop outdoor lessons, is expected report on the program’s first year later this summer.

Elliott said it is important for kids to experience outdoor learning. 

“It is a proven, effective learning model to teach students. It allows them to learn by getting out and enjoying Oregon’s natural environment,” he said. “State funding brings forward equity in programming so it can be experienced by every student in the state, regardless of where they live.

“Prior to this state funding, it was up to local districts to fundraise or to charge families.” 

Through most programs, Elliott said students dive deep into learning about a particular ecosystem or research project, sometimes working alongside scientists. Others, like Nyssa, take students on trips that explore places the children might not otherwise see. Many incorporate activities that build bonds between students or focus on the development of leadership and social skills. 

“Each district develops a program that works for their students,” he said. . 

Fifth-grade teacher Melodie Ayarza said Nyssa will apply for a second year of support after the success of its first Outdoor School. 

“A lot of these kids haven’t even seen the ocean,” she said, standing on the beach near Newport with dozens of laughing, splashing children. “This is an amazing opportunity for them to get hands-on science.” 

Nyssa students and staff gather with Yaquina Lighthouse in the background as they learn and explore new places through the Outdoor School program. (Submitted photo)

The schedule: Five days to explore

Fifth grade teachers Melodie Ayarza, Angie Davis, Brooke Johnson, and Steve Morrison, along with “resident geologist” Chris Carlton, taught area-specific science lessons as two bus loads of students toured Oregon’s natural wonders. The district has again applied for state funding to do a similar program next year. 

Day 1: Lava Caves outside Bend in Deschutes National Forest

Day 2: Oregon State University visit and tour in Corvallis

Day 3: In Newport: Dockside Charters whale watching tour, Depoe Bay Coast Guard talk, ranger-led Presentation at Depoe Bay Whale Center, Mariner Square (Wax Works, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Undersea Gardens), unstructured beach time

Day 4: Yaquina Lighthouse visit and ranger-led tide pool program, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland (including a planetarium show, an IMAX showing of “Wild Africa,” and Robotic Revolution exhibit)

Day 5: On the Columbia River: Bonneville Fish Hatchery, Bonneville Dam and Locks.

Pictured from left: Analise Stringer, Mazy Stringer, Philip Andrew, Mia Bayes, Mia Gomeza

Pictured from left: Devin Dorathy, Analise Stringer, Kevin Dorathy, Jacob Gonzalez, Mazy Stringer, Jose DeLeon