Saturday, September 27, 2008

(Tim Bower, left, with Debra Hetrick, who sought grants for the proposal. Both work for the Beyond the Bell branch of the LAUSD.)
Thousands of Students Will Benefit By One Woman’s Endless Spirit to Build an Outdoor Education Center at Angel’s Gate; This December, the Dream Becomes a Reality;
Whatever Happens, Officials Say the Center Can Collaborate with a Proposed Satellite High School at the Site – In fact, Center Officials Would Welcome Such a Campus

By Diana L. Chapman

Imagine this: Being a kid and pitching a tent at Point Fermin Park perched atop towering cliff sides overlooking the Pacific. Despite crisp, burly ocean breezes, misting fogs clinging to the bluffs and a damp chill in the summer air, students kept on coming and coming.

For years, they came in droves each summer to study the surrounding nature and environment – in the biggest classroom the world can offer – the Great Outdoors.

The rustic beginnings of the Los Angeles School District outdoor educationqprogram, which began in 1948, kept on running even after it was moved away from Point Fermin to district property at Angel’s Gate – which also sports a continuous, wide-angle view of the Pacific Ocean.

When Debra Hetrick arrived in 1985, the joke from the program director at Angel’s Gate center was that he “laid in a weedy field with a phone to run the program,” she quipped. But that will change this December – due to Debra’s steadfast attempts to garner money for the construction of the new Point Fermin Outdoor Education Center.

After arriving, Debra, who coordinates outdoor programming for the district, concluded the Point Fermin center did so much for students that it deserved more than a vacant field, a trailer and tents.
Having helped pitch tents for hundreds of fifth grade students from a wide swath of Los Angeles, she proposed the program should have a kitchen and cafeteria where students could eat indoors instead of being taught to eat, holding down a plate, so both food and plate didn’t blow away in the brisk winds.

And with the perils of rain and cold storms, Debra figured converting two old military warehouses into dormitories complete with bunk beds would be more appropriate over tents. Furthermore, since the entire program was built on protecting the environment, she suggested the use of some beautiful natural gardens to encourage wild foxes and raptors to remain in the park-style land known as Angel's Gate, part of which is owned by the Los Angeles Unified School district; the other part owned by the city of Los Angeles.

Wildlife can be a great teacher, she explained.
This December, after years of going after grants, Debra’s dream will come true at last. Her spirited drive to obtain about $7 million lobbying for funds from agencies such as the Wild Lands Conservancy – which donated $2.5. million – and with LAUSD board members agreeing to match that using bond funds, the project she’s dreamed of for more than two decades will become a reality.

“I’ve wanted it for years,” Debra explained to me after we tromped through the brush and fields overlooking the location. “It’s just amazing because the project has been delayed so many times. And now the dream has come true. When we started, all we had was a field.”

What once was a scrap of vacant land where counselors and naturalists -- with names like Mr. Nemo, Mr. Squid, Crabby and Sea Star – would pitch tents outside, the new facility can operate year-round where warm, indoor bunks will fill up with hundreds of chattering students all week long. About 160 fifth graders will visit during the week; on the weekends, about 120 middle and high schools students will have use of the site.

Located in the north westerly portion of Angel’s Gate, by December 2009, two former cylinder-style military warehouses will be converted and filled with bunk beds, a third building will hold a cavernous cafeteria and a kitchen. A smaller building will house staff who will be full time at the site.
If all goes well, the center should be up and running officially by July 2010 – if not sooner.
Then, Monday through Friday, fifth graders will be shuttled there to stay for one week – virtually free – to study assorted creatures in the tide pools, visit the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, spend time at the Marine Mammal Care and the International Bird Rescue centers and to make visits to the historic Fort MacArthur Museum where they will walk through underground tunnels left behind from World War II.

The extensive upgrade allows Beyond the Bell, which runs after school and outdoor programs for the Los Angeles school district, to host nearly 12,000 students yearly, nearly doubling the original numbers from 7,000 at the site.

With both of the district’s outdoor education facilities, which includes Clear Creek in the Los Angeles National Forest, about 21,000 district students will run through the outdoor programs.
At the new Point Fermin Center –which has been on hold for several summers since the conversion was taking place-- students will hike, study marine life and habitat, and learn concepts about the environment and how to protect it.

They will get glimpses into the field of astronomy by studying the stars, sit at campfires telling stories, learn to clean up after themselves in the kitchen – and most importantly – learn to become a team.

Teachers, Debra explained, have revealed many times that the two outdoor education programs have rounded out those students both socially and academically and increased their self esteem.
In addition, those who attend often see an increase in test scores.

Debra glorifies in those moments when teachers call and reveal the attributes that outdoor education has brought to their students and says the reason for this is simple. When they learn hands-on, outside – using games like predator and prey tag where students play one or the other – the lessons tend to stick and give students a broader picture of nature and its environment.
The program brushes students through quick courses in geology, science and even history.
Former elementary school teacher, Tim Bower, now a Beyond the Bell official, said his experience in bringing four different classes to the Clear Creek program was discovering that “without exception, the students I took…were closer knit, supported each other, and had fewer discipline issues for the balance of the school year,” he explained.

“There are many district teachers and staff that I have talked to that had a Clear Creek or Point Fermin experience either as a teacher or student,” Tim said. “The experience was a memory that lasted a lifetime. I run into people all the time that consider the experience of going to Clear Creek and Point Fermin as a privilege they were fortunate to have.”

While the Los Angeles school district also continues to pursue building a 500-seat campus at Angel’s Gate as well – the property was once owned by the military who dedicated it to the school district in the 1970s -- community opponents have used the Outdoor Education Center as a reason not to build a school.
The campus, opponents said, would hamper the center’s abilities to run its programs. Up for discussion is the district’s proposal to take San Pedro High School’s marine and police magnet to the site – as a satellite to the high school – despite intense and sharp opposition from some community members who believe it will destroy the serenity of the area. District officials, however, contend that they must reduce overcrowding at the high school, which currently houses about 3,500 students.

Both Debra and Tim said the center would embrace a high school campus, because in many was the programs could collaborate. For instance, Debra said, if labs are built for a marine magnet, the center’s students could use the facility for their experiments. In addition, the older students could help the younger students to learn.

“We don’t think a high school would interfere with us at all,” Debra revealed. “We will co-exist with that high school beautifully.”
Dave Kooper, the chief officer for Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic who has lobbied for the school at Angel's Gate, echoed those sentiments.
"It is going to be a wonderful partnership.," Dave explained. "They will have access to our facilities after hours and will benefit from the the shared educational opportunities."

By the time the center is completely finished, it will include three circular gardens for teaching – with natural brush such as coastal sage – to encourage current wildlife from red-tailed hawks and kestrels to red foxes to remain as part of ecosystem.

Some of the most special nights at the center in the past, Debra recalled, was to watch the excited reaction of the kids when a family of foxes trooped by.

At the end of the summer in the past were some of Debra’s saddest days – especially when she heard the winds whipping through the “collapsing tents,” signaling the end of that summer program.
That sad, lonely sound she will no longer have to hear – once the new center is up and running. Instead, she will be listen to students chatter into the darkness of the night.