- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Donning safety gear and climbing up to “the catwalk” at Camp Colman was the easy part, according to 13-year-old Grace Playstead.

Walking across a log that’s 35 feet in the air, surrounded by a forest canopy? Not so much.

“Like, your legs are shaking as you go across it,” recalled Playstead, an eighth-grader at Marshall Middle School in Olympia. “But it feels super awesome when you get across it and make that goal.”

About 45 Marshall students spent three days at the YMCA’s camp on Case Inlet on the Puget Sound near Longbranch last week for its Outdoor Environmental Education Program.

They’re part of the newly launched Citizen Science Institute, a grade 6-8 alternative program that combines science, research and community service activities.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the program,” said parent Mark Bergeson, who helped chaperone the trip to Camp Colman. “The kids are engaged.”

During the next school year, CSI students will spend about a half day each week conducting field investigations for a variety of environmental and community organizations, such as the Pacific Shellfish Institute, Garden Raised Bounty and the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. Projects include migratory bird counting, water quality testing in local streams and assisting a research project that’s measuring nitrogen levels found in mussels.

Marshall CSI teacher Matthew Phillipy described the field investigations as real-world science.

“There’s a lot of data that needs to be gathered, but agencies don’t have the resources to do it,” added Tom Condon, who is team-teaching the program.

CSI replaced the longtime Marshall Alternative Program, which was once one of the most popular optional offerings in the district.

“We were noticing that the enrollment was falling, and we needed to do something different,” said Marshall principal Condee Wood.

Over the years, the Olympia School District has expanded its alternative and optional programs for that age range, which include Jefferson Accelerated Math & Science Program at Jefferson Middle School, the ALKI Program at Reeves Middle School and the Olympia Regional Learning Academy. The district also is piloting an in-depth humanities program in its middle schools, according to its website.

Last spring, the sixth-grade portion of ALKI was nearly eliminated by school officials due to low enrollment, but a group of parents lobbied the Olympia School Board to get the program’s funding restored for the 2015-16 school year.

“Parents have a lot of choices today,” said Condon. “It was time to re-examine who we are and what we can offer to students that’s relevant.”

As part of the restructuring, school officials trimmed Marshall’s program from a full day that included all subjects to a half-day institute that covers science, social studies and PE. Students now take math and language arts classes with other students at the middle school.

However, some of MAP’s traditions carried over, including its multi-age classes, interdisciplinary approach and connection with community organizations, Condon said.

“I like the idea of mixed grades because sometimes you learn the grade ahead of you,” said 10-year-old Mady Talley, a sixth-grader in the CSI program.

The program also has a strong family component, just as MAP did.

Families who can afford it were asked to pay $150 for the school year to help pay for the program’s expenses, including the camp’s tuition, Condon said. Those who couldn’t afford it can help in the class or participate in one of the program’s fundraisers, such as its Dec. 6 family movie event at Capitol Theater.

“We actually require parents to be involved in some level,” Phillipy said. “We really want to stress that learning is a community — it’s not just a teacher and students.”

During their time at Camp Colman, students participated in outdoor challenge courses, learned about forest survival skills, took a night hike without a flashlight, and explored the nearly 100-acre facility’s beach and marine animal touch tanks.

The goal of the camp was to help the students develop a bond and teach the older students some leadership skills, Condon said.

“It’s so important to have leaders in our eighth grade,” he added. “We tell them they really have no idea how powerful their influence is.”

The students helped secure the ropes and cheer on their classmates as they crossed the catwalk.

Marshall parent Marci Arthur said she was glad the students had a chance to build friendships and try activities that aren’t offered in a regular classroom. She said she likes the program’s flexibility.

Fourteen-year-old Cedar Connell, an eighth-grader, said he enjoyed the group’s time at Camp Colman.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Like, ‘Get out of your comfort zone’ and stuff.”

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Information from: The Olympian, http://www.theolympian.com

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