Imagine a school that allows students to canoe down a river, hold a bird of prey, and rappel down a cliff wall, among numerous other fun and exciting outdoor activities, for an entire school year. This one-of-a-kind opportunity is available through the WOLF (Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility) program, the product of a successful public-private partnership between the Springfield, Missouri public school system, Bass Pro Shops, and the Wonders of Wildlife Museum. And the best part about it is it’s free.
The yearlong school is open to 46 fifth-graders (23 boys and 23 girls) who are chosen from throughout the district by lottery system. They come from an economically and culturally diverse population of students, and include children from rural, urban, Title I, and high-need schools. It is not a gifted program and there are no academic requirements for acceptance.
Students initially learn about conserving local ecosystems in the classroom, and then experience those lessons firsthand by exploring the natural wonders of the Ozark region. By seamlessly blending a traditional 5th grade curriculum into a hands-on, place-based education, the school has successfully created a bridge between the students and the outdoors. “We still teach them everything, but with a nature angle,” says Sue Dyle, a teacher at the school.
It is an optimal way to reach a generation of youth that has become increasingly disconnected from the natural world. “The WOLF program changes the dynamics of how you learn, what you learn, and why you learn,” says Martin MacDonald, Director of Conservation for Bass Pro Shops.
While no one can argue WOLF is a welcome break from the confines of the traditional classroom setting, how effective is it from an academic perspective? According to Dyle, the school continues to see high marks from all its students in both classroom and statewide assessment tests. Students really develop a passion for learning, she says. But it is the intangibles such as improved self-confidence, teamwork, and an increased understanding of the environment that really set the program apart.
For former student Brock Metcalf, WOLF taught him things he never would have dreamed of learning in his previous school. A self-avowed animal lover, he discovered creatures he never knew existed and got to handle rescued animals such as a barn owl he skillfully displayed during a recent tour. His most valuable takeaway: be respectful. An important lesson continually reinforced throughout the program, both inside and outside the classroom.
Patrick Kerr is the Region VII Director of Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education’s Kansas City office.