Each year, thousands of Oregon parents hug their kids goodbye and send them tramping into the wilderness for up to a week to learn about their state's natural wonders.
The Outdoor School program was groundbreaking when it started more than a half-century ago. Since then, more than 1 million children have enjoyed — or endured — this rite of passage at campsites scattered from Oregon's stormy coast to its towering evergreen forests to its rugged high desert.
At the program's heyday, 90 percent of sixth-graders spent the week testing water samples, studying fungi and digging through topsoil. Today, just half of Oregon's 11- and 12-year-olds take part, mostly through a patchwork of grants, fundraising, parent fees and charitable donations. Caps on property taxes, plus the recent recession, have forced many school districts to scrap the program or whittle it down to just a few days.
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