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Nurturing with nature

There are a lot of misconceptions about the John Muir School in Ashland, Principal Rebecca Gyarmathy said. But unlike what some people may think, the smaller, nature-focused program serves kindergarten through eighth grade and is a public school in the Ashland School District.

Eighth-grader Griffin Waymire, 13, has attended since kindergarten, and he said he loves how much time he and his classmates spend outdoors, especially the frequent backpacking trips.

“It’s about the experience,” Griffin said. “There are trips more focused on the academics and then trips focused on the experience.”

He said his favorite trek was a weeklong expedition to visit the redwoods when he was in fifth grade.

Students finish preparations at the school before heading out and usually hike less than 10 miles a day.

“All the materials we need like food, and backpacks to rent are here in case we don’t have them,” Griffin said.

He said the most he’s hiked with his classmates was 10 miles a day on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Griffin’s family doesn’t do much exploring in the backcountry, he said, and for other kids like him it’s a great chance to learn about nature.

Most trips are supervised by teachers and education aides only, but parents are encouraged to come along to many, especially those involving the younger students. Parents are also encouraged to volunteer as much as possible with the school.

Gyarmathy said each outdoor activity is closely related to a topic the students are studying in class. Additionally, the school has a different schoolwide unit of study each year that is broken down for the different grade levels.

She said one year it was rivers and water.

“So, the kindergartners were maybe just learning about what sinks and floats,” she said. “The eighth-graders were researching the water flow levels of a river and how the seasons impact that and how does a drought year impact that, and then they actually do a multi-day trip to the Rogue River studying those things and bringing their research and seeing if it matches up.”

She said in addition to academic studies, students learn about preparedness and survival skills.

“We want them outside even on days like today,” Gyarmathy said pointing at the rain tapping the window of her office.

Kindergartners may learn about what types of clothes to wear, she said, and the eighth-graders may learn how to prepare a meal in the wind and rain.

“It all applies to real life,” Gyarmathy said. “I’ll never forget last year’s fifth-sixth-grade class who did a two-night backpacking trip in the beginning of the year in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness.”

She said the trip was in September, and no one expected it to snow, but it did, and she watched the students came back from that trip soaking wet and cold.

“But then on Monday, every single student was smiling and had bonded so much with each other,” Gyarmathy said. “Just aspiring in their first step of going through an adverse experience and coming out successful on the other side. Going from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘wow, I did that.’ These experiences will help these kids their whole lives.”

The school is the only one in the district that stills blends two grades into each classroom. So kindergarten and first grade are together in one class, and second and third grade share a classroom.

Classes and sometimes smaller groups of students participate in buddy pairing with activities such as reading, lunch, recess and trips outside of the classroom. It teaches the older students responsibility, but it also allows the students to remain children longer.

Gyarmathy said some sixth- through eighth-grade students still want to play, but in middle school that’s not considered “cool.”

“We believe kids learn from each other,” Gyarmathy said.

Fifth-grader Teagon Filoon said her favorite experience was when she went to Earth-Teach, John Muir’s outdoor campus off Dead Indian Memorial Road. Teagon said her class took a night hike and got to play games in the dark, then at the end could walk back to camp alone.

“Without a buddy,” Teagon emphasized. “It was pretty fun because you got to hear the silence and the trees and everything, it was really nice. We had a great time.”

Gyarmathy said they try to get all 125 students outside once a week if possible, in addition to the backpacking and outdoor education trips for fourth- through eighth-graders.

Fifth-grader Parker Wildman said she doesn’t mind having classes with both older and younger kids.

“It gives you a wider variety of friends,” Parker said.

Parker said her favorite part of the school is the outdoor adventures. She said her favorite trip was an overnight excursion to Bandon, where she and her friends played in the tide under the moonlight.

In addition to outdoor education, Gyarmathy said students receive 60 minutes a week of music education and spend another 90 minutes learning about art. She said an artist has come in every week to instruct the students on a different art form, from painting to doll making, this year.

Students also take trips to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

This spring, the Stories Alive group is offering a free session on creative writing in which students will act out their stories.

She said the goal is to eventually allow the kindergarten though third-grade students the same opportunities as the older students, but right now the funding isn’t as readily available.

She said it costs approximately $9,000 to fund the fourth through eighth grade. She said the school takes advantage of scholarships, grants, money raised by the parent-teacher collective and other sources as much as possible.

There’s also a suggested donation when new students arrive, ranging from $40-$200, depending on the grade levels.

“You’ll find there’s lots of research which shows that kids need to be exposed to outdoor education,” Gyarmathy said. She then quoted psychologist Lev Vygotsky, “Children grow into the environment around them.”

“So, you put kids in that environment,” Gyarmathy said.

She said the school is commensurate with the school district, it just gets to work differently from the average school structure.

Gyarmathy said John Muir originated with the encouragement of parents in Walker Middle’s basement and officially opened fall of 2006.

There are 125 students accepted every year.

Applications are accepted now through Saturday, April 13. Students are chosen randomly through a lottery process. The lottery is drawn April 18 this year.

Gyarmathy encourages anyone interested to apply.

“Things change, families change or move. There are always spots opening up,” Gyarmathy said. “You just never know.”

To apply, either stop by the office at 100 Walker Ave. located in the middle of the Walker Middle School Building. Or visit the school’s website at ashland.k12.or.us/SectionIndex.asp?SectionID=64.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Second- and third-graders study plant life in the John Muir School courtyard. Courtesy photo
Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders camp at the Lava Beds as part of a geology unit study of the John Muir School this past fall. Courtesy photo