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.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find too many kids who don't love" the program, said Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, who, along with Commission President Doug Howard, insists the county — now running a budget surplus of about $10 million — can avoid the cuts Guthrie is warning about.
Both Shoemaker and Howard say the board of commissioners should stick to a five-year plan it approved last year, which would keep school funding as it is.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild argues there's been too little attention paid to the long view. With the state shifting more teacher pension costs to the counties, and with Carroll schools seeing a decline in enrollment — which in turn reduces state aid — he insists there's a bigger budget problem that is not being addressed.
The school board is expected to propose an operating budget Wednesday, and Guthrie said the request will include funding to keep Outdoor School in operation.
The commissioners won't vote on the overall county budget until May — after public hearings and deliberations — but they've been discussing for months the impact of falling school enrollments, whether the system should consider closing school buildings and how much money to spend on education.
As they debate the system's fiscal health, hundreds of children have continued taking stock of environmental health at Hashawha.
On a cold morning last week, Collin Angell — one of five teachers in the program — gathered his group of 14 students around a computer display and several charts to prepare for their day investigating the Bear Branch.
The lesson on stream ecology was typical of what Heacock calls the school's "environmental issue investigation" approach, combining classroom and field work. Students delve into a question about the environment, figure out how to answer it, then determine what might be done to improve what humans have fouled up.
The question in stream ecology is straightforward: how to judge the health of a waterway? Using his oversized monitor and a series of charts in the classroom and down at the stream, Angell talked about evidence that could be used to answer that question.
Wearing high rubber boots supplied by the school, students waded into the chilly stream up to their ankles to consider water clarity, flow, temperature, erosion of the banks and the condition of the stream bottom. They were then asked to grab nets and buckets to take samples to check for bugs and fish.
The students learn certain bugs and fish are more helpful than others in judging water quality, as some species are more sensitive to pollution. The presence of more of those pollution-sensitive ones suggests a healthier stream.
Once inside the "wetlands building," where the students sift through samples, Nathan Grella and Donovan Baldwin found their bucket of leaves and rocks contained signs of good news about Bear Branch. Donovan found a brown, wormy thing about the size of a rice grain that turned out to be caddisfly larva, listed as "very pollution sensitive" on the chart.
Nathan found something just a bit larger, looking almost like a miniature grasshopper. The mayfly nymph was also listed as "very pollution sensitive."
Other students found two fish considered "somewhat pollution tolerant": the tessellated darter and the Blue Ridge sculpin. Alas, no brook trout, a "sensitive" species not found in these waters since the 1940s, said Angell.
In a group discussion, the students talked about their observations and pronounced the stream "somewhat healthy" — and went on to design projects that could improve it.
Near the end of a week in which they called for owls in the night and heard none calling back, but saw beavers on a pond, raptors in their cages and a couple of shooting stars, the students were learning the power of observation and action.
Donovan pointed to an indentation in the cold, blackish stone, where he found the caddisfly larva.
"A lot of stuff is hiding in stuff," he said. "You can't find it without looking at it."