Imagine your classroom as a ponderosa pine forest, with the call of magpies and the sound of wind-rustled branches as the backdrop. Located on 640 acres in Black Forest, School in the Woods is a living classroom for 78 fourth-graders; its mission: to nurture, develop and equip young, imaginative stewards of our natural communities.
“We believe students learn best through experiential education,” says Jon Wuerth, co-founder and coordinator of School in the Woods. “It’s important to build a relationship with nature … then [you] appreciate it and want to protect it.”
Since 1999, the District 20 charter school has used the natural sciences as a base for a challenging field-based curriculum. Students—called naturalists—actively explore and learn about ecosystems, making direct observations of plants, animals, weather, water and soil conditions. They spend as much of the school day as possible outside in all seasons, integrating other subjects such as math and language arts into the overall learning experience. But they also apply some technology for research, documentation, investigation and problem-solving. Any third-grader may apply for a year at SITW, but the school must accept D-20 students first, according to its charter. Typically there are more D-20 applicants than available spots, so students are selected through a lottery.
“I’m proud of the community that is developed each year … the sense of humanity you feel and the kids’ passion,” Wuerth says. “When they leave, the students feel empowered to make a difference … and advocate for a better world.”