The Howard County Public School System is changing its outdoor education program for middle school students, replacing its traditional overnight camping experience on the Chesapeake Bay with two one-day field trips inside the county.
The school system says the two new field trips will be far less costly, while focusing on Howard County’s science curriculum and benefiting far more students. Alumni of the previous program, however, say that students will be missing out on a unique middle school experience.
More than 30 years after she went on an overnight outdoor education trip as a Harper’s Choice Middle School sixth grader, Kathy Broughton still vividly remembers the experience.
“We took a small boat out to a little barrier island,” said Broughton, 42, of Glenelg. “You could see a storm way offshore and [our chaperone] explained how you could tell that those were rain clouds.
“When I see rain clouds off in the horizon, I think back to that moment.”
Broughton said the trip was a catalyst for her career as a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For several decades, before the COVID-19 pandemic, most county public school sixth graders spent several nights at NorthBay Adventure Camp or Sandy Hill Camp and Retreat Center, both in Cecil County, for their outdoor education experience. The school system’s Central Office took over management of outdoor education from individual schools in 2016 with the goal of offering more consistent programming.
School officials cited a number of factors, including cost, transportation issues and attendance as reasons for the shift to one-day field trips. In addition, neither of the previous trips offered were aligned with the science curriculum. The new trip to the Howard County Conservancy will be part of a science unit focused on climate justice, written by Howard public school staff.
“Everything is being created by Howard County staff, aligned to Howard County curriculum and, quite frankly, within Howard County, going and using Howard County vendors and our partners,” said Area 3 community superintendent Kendra Johnson.
The average out-of-pocket expense for students on the 2019-2020 trips was $172, though it was free for students enrolled in the federal Free and Reduced Meals program. Cost was a major reason many families decided not to participate in past trips, according to Johnson. Participation ranged from 50-80% per school in 2019-2020, Johnson said.
Without additional fundraising, the school system estimated it would cost $300 per student to continue the overnight program, based on new prices given by NorthBay as well as increased transportation costs.
The new outdoor education program will consist of a supplemental team-building trip to the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia in the fall and a spring trip to the Howard County Conservancy as part of the climate change unit.
This year, all 20 middle schools, plus the Homewood Center and Cedar Lane School, will participate in the team-building trip for free, and 13 schools will also go to the conservancy in the spring. All middle schools are expected to participate in the spring program next school year, which will also be free due to a three-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant to the conservancy.
“The driving question [behind the climate justice unit] is related to how and why are different communities impacted differently by climate change,” said Jaclyn Austin, instructional facilitator for secondary science at county public schools. “[Students] dive into looking at our own local community, thinking about how extreme weather has impacted us with the Ellicott City floods. We also look at urban heat islands.”
Some students and parents said eliminating the overnight trip deprives students of key social experiences. No other overnight field trips are offered to middle schoolers, according to Johnson.
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“Now more than ever, these kids need some guided socialization and some guided interaction with their peers because it’s like we’ve lost the ability to do that,” said Kim Ford, 49, whose daughter participated in the former program at Glenwood Middle School. “For some kids, they were in their living rooms for two years.”
Zoe Flavin, 14, went to NorthBay with Folly Quarter Middle School in fall 2019, the year after her family moved to Howard County, and said the experience was a fun way to meet and bond with other students.
While sleeping overnight in cabins by the bay may not have been for everyone, Broughton said it was an essential Howard County middle school experience.
“I know that there’s kids that hate it because they go and they realize, ‘I hate camping, I don’t like being away from home,’” she said. “But I think that in itself is a lesson, too, that [outdoor education] helps forge what you appreciate and like and value out of life.”
The school system will survey all sixth graders this year to collect feedback on the new team-building experience and update it as needed, Johnson said.
“I honor wholeheartedly the sentiments of families who would like us to go back to the way it was, but we’re trying to balance the needs of the entire district,” Johnson added.