Looking for a better way to reach some of his students, Joe Howard, then principal of Four Corners Elementary School in Silver Spring, launched a program that still touches the lives of thousands of students every year.
That was 50 years ago. Howard is retired now and Four Corners Elementary no longer exists.
But his idea, outdoor education, is still going strong.
Montgomery County Public Schools celebrated the 50th anniversary of its outdoor education program Saturday with an open house at the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center in Rockville.
“The motivation came when we were building an outdoor trail at [Four Corners] and found that the ‘problem’ kids were not problems when working outdoors,” Howard said. “So we tried to find things in the curriculum that we could teach outdoors — things like studying the ecosystem, the forest community, ponds and streams and meadows.”
Howard took the very first class of outdoor education students, fifth-graders from Four Corners, to Camp Greentop in Thurmont in 1962. About 20 of those students attended Saturday’s open house for a mini-reunion. A photo of them hangs in the meeting hall of the Smith Center.
“It was just one class, a pilot program,” said Kathleen Cochran of Chevy Chase, who was part of the pilot program. “The next year Mr. Howard took about 90 kids, the very first class to do outdoor ed.”
Howard eventually became the school district’s first supervisor of outdoor education programs, he said, serving in that position from the mid-1970s until he retired in 1988.
“To me it was a more effective way of teaching, learning by doing,” Howard said. “We didn’t just tell them what was going on in a pond, we showed them.”
The school district opened the Smith Environmental Education Center on 10 acres in Rockville in 1974, built to accommodate all the district’s sixth-graders as they attended the five-day residential program.
Smith, who lived from 1902 to 1971, was a Montgomery County Council president, board of education president, farmer and conservationist.
“[He was the] driving force for the preservation of the Rock Creek valley to save it from mass development of residential communities,” Laurie Jenkins, current supervisor of the program, wrote in an email.
Over the years, with budget cuts and population growth, Howard said, the residential program has been cut from five to three days. And the program needs to rent other facilities to handle all the sixth-graders, Jenkins said.
“We can get about 40 to 45 percent of our sixth-grade schools in but we also use two other sites, Summit Lake [Camp] in Emmitsburg and Skycroft [Conference Center] in Middletown,” Jenkins said.
According to the Smith Center website, the Outdoor Environmental Education Program “serves over 20,000 students each year in two major programs: the Residential Program in which every Grade 6 student participates and the Day Program in which [pre-K]-12 students explore and investigate the natural environment. At all programs students participate in curriculum-based environmental investigations.”
The staff also provides professional development in environmental education to more than 500 teachers annually.
Outdoor education was celebrated Saturday by more than 300 people, Jenkins said. The day included a formal news conference, a birthday cake and hands-on activities at 24 learning stations.
Brandon Hebert, 8, a third-grader at Lois P. Rockwell Elementary School in Damascus, said his favorite activity was the confidence course.
“It makes you stronger and you have to think before you use it,” Brandon said.