Sixth-grader Josh Zientek literally immersed himself in a cutting-edge educational tool: a tub of mud.
“Get your hands in there and mix it up,” Sharyl Massey, an instructor, told a gaggle of 12- and 13-year-olds gathered in a greenhouse. They were preparing soil for milkweed seeds that some day will sprout and nourish flocks of migrating Monarch butterflies.
For 70 years, Cuyamaca Outdoor School — better known as sixth grade camp — has specialized in such hands-on, low-tech assignments. Even today there’s a decided lack of laptops or iPads, but few seem to mind.
“I’d probably give it a nine out of 10,” said Josh, a student at Encinitas’ El Camino Creek Elementary School, when asked to grade his five days at camp. “It’s very interactive, a very fun way to learn.”
That’s been true for generations. While today’s lessons reflect current requirements and knowledge of the natural world, the school’s textbooks have been the same for 70 years: plants, animals, stars.
This old-fashioned place, though, is supported by new research.
“This is the cutting edge of education,” said Richard Louv, a San Diego-based writer (and former San Diego Union-Tribune columnist) whose books include “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
Studies in Massachusetts and Chicago, Louv said, show that outdoor education enhances students’ learning and morale.
“If school districts really care about test scores and the physical and mental health of kids,” he said, “they would be going in this direction. But they assume that the way to raise test scores is to infuse classrooms with more and more computers and video games.”
In 2010, the local outdoor education movement took a hit. Citing recessionary financial pressures, the San Diego Unified School District dropped out of the program. The San Diego County Office of Education once operated three camps — Cuyamaca, inside Rancho Cuyamaca State Park; Palomar, on Palomar Mountain, and Fox, near Lake Henshaw.
Only Cuyamaca remains.
On a recent visit, this sole survivor hummed with activity. Students hiked in the surrounding meadows and mountains; identified bird species; examined a towering oak for evidence of beetle infestation; sanded manzanita branches for take-home souvenirs.
They were also forming lifelong memories, Principal Greg Schuett said, and forging a link between generations.
“What else in our society can a sixth grade student do that relates directly to what their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did?” he asked.
Not bad for an institution that owes its existence to corn flakes.
Early in the Great Depression, a cereal magnate launched a venture in Battle Creek, Mich. From its birth in 1930, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation embraced child-friendly causes, including outdoor education.
“Already at that time,” Schuett said, “there was a feeling that kids were disconnected from nature. Now, it’s like times 10.”
In 1933, the foundation opened the United States’ first “fresh air school,” Clear Lake Camp in Michigan. Two more Kellogg-funded schools followed in the woods around Battle Creek. Eager to spread the word, the foundation convened a national conference on outdoor education in 1943.
Although World War II was raging, the subject was considered important enough to draw educators from Texas, New York and San Diego.
On March 17, 1946 — less than a year after the war’s end — the San Diego City-County School Camp opened in Cuyamaca. The largest and oldest of California’s 23 outdoor schools, the 20-acre campus has educated about 1 million sixth-graders.
Nature is celebrated here, even though that affection isn’t always returned. Flood waters tore away a camp bridge in the 1990s. Firefighters made a successful stand here during the 2003 Cedar fire.
And while San Diego Unified’s defection was a blow, Camp Cuyamaca is almost always sold out.
“We have one more week available, in May,” Schuett said. “And schools can contact me any time about next year.”
The fare per student for the Monday-through-Friday camp is $320. Each school determines how much of that tab is covered by parents, and how much by fundraisers. The San Diego Outdoor Education Foundation has also helped underwrite some classes’ attendance.
Each week includes archery, rock climbing, crafts and campfires, yet Schuett stressed that this is not summer camp. He’s a certified principal and his 45-member staff includes four credentialed teachers and 16 specialists in botany, ornithology, geology, astronomy.
Rather than a week’s vacation, teachers say this is a week’s immersion into a deeper form of education.
“I feel bad for schools that cut this out of their curriculum,” said Leslie O’Keefe, a teacher from El Camino Creek. “They don’t understand how much kids learn here.”
O’Keefe spoke from experience. Long experience. She’s brought classes here for 39 years.
She also attended as a student in 1968.
Sent by her mother, Jerelyn Bounds, herself an alumna.
“This,” O’Keefe said, “is really a rite of passage.”
Ava Angelo focused a pair of binoculars on a cedar’s fire-damaged trunk. “There’s a white one,” she said, “with a black back.”
Her friend, Nikki Lockwood, scanned a chart with sketches of several dozen bird species. “Black Phoebe,” Nikki said.
“Yeah,” Ava agreed, jotting a note in her bird journal.
For both El Camino Creek students, camp was the first time they’d slept away from home and family. They didn’t seem too worried.
“I love being out in nature,” Ava said.
Not everyone adjusts with ease. “Monday and Tuesday, there can be a lot of homesickness,” said Sue Whitaker, the registered nurse in the camp’s health center.
Her prescription? “I have this special wand,” she said, waving a polished manzanita branch.
Now in her third year at camp, Whitaker has called 911 on a few occasions, as a handful of students have suffered seizures, asthma attacks and — once — a broken bone. More common were the complaints she fielded on a recent afternoon. A boy came in with a nose bleed, a girl a headache.
“We can fix that,” the nurse told each kid, breaking out Kleenex for one and ibuprofen for the other.
This school year, more than 11,000 students will attend camp. All will have a different experience, yet each will become part of a long, widespread local tradition. Baseball great Tony Gwynn’s children came here, as did the offspring of skateboard Tony Hawk. One month before the 2012 presidential election, campers included two grandchildren of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
“Nobody talked politics,” said Susanne Beattie, one of the camp’s two head teachers.
With deer to track, woodpeckers to spot, California live oaks to measure, constellations to identify and stories to spin around the campfire, presidential debates can wait. “A lot of the kids come from the city,” Beattie said, “and they’ve never seen the night sky without all the lights.”
Even when they are not visible, the stars are present. And even after students go home from camp, something of its influence lingers.
“Kids are never the same after they come back from sixth grade camp,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a bonding experience.”