With the start of another school year just weeks away, educators in the Granite School District have the usual back-to-school checklists on their minds.
Prepare classrooms, order supplies, organize first-day orientations and ... dissect owl pellets?
Principals from several of the district’s schools will head 60 miles southeast of Salt Lake City on Thursday to the Mill Hollow Outdoor Education Center, where they will take part in activities usually reserved for educating fourth- through sixth-graders about nature.
Hiking, leaf printing and, yes, even dissecting owl pellets are all on the docket as educators take in the Uinta Mountains.
But the trip isn’t all fun and games. In a time when professional development budgets are tight, the excursion is a chance for school leaders to network and exchange ideas before the new school year starts — while also scoping out a camp that they can encourage their students to attend next summer.
“It’s an opportunity for us to look and ask questions about how we can get our kids involved in this program,” said Ike Spencer, principal of West Lake Junior High in West Valley City. “Sometimes, for a kid who has never been up in the mountains, it means taking them to another side of the city.”
Mill Hollow’s center opened 45 years ago and today is managed as part of the Granite Peaks Lifelong Learning program.
More than 4,500 students will visit the center over the course of the summer for a three-day camp. In earlier sessions, teachers from the district are trained to teach the camp’s lessons on subjects such as plants, animals, geology, ecology, astronomy and the environment.
Classes are tied to the state’s core curriculum to ensure students are keeping up with standards designed to foster high-quality instruction, said Claudia Thorum, director of the center.
Science and history lessons aren’t taught out of a book, however. Students pan for gold in a creek while they learn about the history of the West and are paid a visit by a “mountain man” to bring social studies to life.
And they learn different lessons by sharing a cabin with their peers and teachers during camp.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s their first time away from home,” Thorum said. “There are the things they learn from the educational perspective (history, social studies, etc). But they also learn about relationships when they are living with kids and other teachers.”
The camp offers a scholarship program for low-income students who aren’t able to afford the $60 tuition — an option educators like Spencer hope to spread to students in school.
At West Lake Junior High, where 31 languages are spoken and nearly 80 percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch, students don’t often get many opportunities to explore Utah’s wilderness, said Spencer.
He said he is hopeful about encouraging many to apply for scholarships next summer.
“I try to get my kids to learn while they don’t know they are being taught,” said Spencer. “This could be an opportunity for my kids to try something new.”
O The Mill Hollow Outdoor Education Center > http://bit.ly/PWR8GZ.