Studying rocks

West Middle School sixth-grader Donovan Baldwin, 11, looks for macro-invertebrates on a rock collected from a stream. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / February 21, 2013)

Sixth-graders from West Middle School in Carroll County scoured the Bear Branch stream one recent morning in search of aquatic life in the dead of winter. Nathan Grella said the contents of his bucket did not appear promising.

"We just got leaves and rocks," said the 12-year-old, one of 57 youngsters spending the week at Outdoor School at Hashawha Environmental Center in Westminster. Closer inspection, however, showed the leaves and rocks were indeed harboring life, information the students will use to size up the stream's health.

For 36 years, sixth-grade students in Carroll County Public Schools have taken turns living at Hashawha for a week, learning lessons of environmental science and participating in what its director describes as "a cultural tradition" in Carroll.

Teachers use the environmental center to impart lessons that they hope students will take with them into the future, but lately there are concerns about the future of Outdoor School itself.

Schools Superintendent Stephen H. Guthrie has warned that budget cuts being discussed by the Board of County Commissioners could force him to shutter the program. While Guthrie wants to keep Outdoor School, he said it could be a casualty of a $4 million budget cut that the board is considering.

"It's not something I'm advocating," Guthrie said. "Outdoor School comes in the mix because it's an extra."

The board of commissioners sets the amount the county spends on schools but not how the money is spent. That's up to the county school board.

Outdoor School costs about $1 million a year in a school budget that stands at about $331 million.

Commissioner Robin B. Frazier, who supports the cut that Guthrie said would jeopardize the program, said there are other ways to save money. She said she believes Guthrie is raising the prospect to pressure the commission for more money.

But Steve Heacock, who has been with the program since it began — first as a teacher, now as director — doesn't see it that way. He said it's not the first time he's heard the school mentioned as a potential cut, but it is "the first time it seems possible."

"Yes, I think the threat is real," Heacock said. "At least it's the first time it's felt real."

On Tuesday, supporters of Outdoor School say, they will present the commissioners a petition with more than 5,200 names gathered online.

"It's very disheartening to think they would cut a program that has changed so many people's lives," said Alicia Lee of Westminster. She launched the petition drive early this month — less than two months after her 11-year-old son, William Nikitin, who goes to Mount Airy Middle School, completed his week at Hashawha.

"He came back as a different kid," Lee said. "We like to hike and camp, and to take him he moans and groans the whole time. Now he's all gung-ho. … He's motivated not only to learn more but to teach the rest of the family what he knows."

Lee said her son seemed to learn to be more self-reliant being on his own for a week. She expected he would call home often but didn't hear from him once during his week's stay.

Testimonials from those who have signed the petition suggest that the school has become a local institution, a rite of passage particular to Carroll County.

Over the past 12 years instructors have honed the program's emphasis on environmental science, but they said they're still fighting a perception that the school is little more than a lark in the woods.

"People say it's a great experience, but it's an education experience," insisted Lauren Moore, a teacher at Outdoor School. "There's still that perception that it's camp, not school."

Students typically live in cabins at Hashawha for a week, spending long days in class and in the field, where they take day and nighttime hikes, have close-up encounters with wildlife and get hands-on lessons in how people can help or hurt the natural world.

The county offers the program to all sixth-graders, including those in private schools, but it is not mandatory. Heacock said the participation rate is about 99 percent, and the program accommodates disabled students.