The Outdoor School at Rancho Alegre, which burned in the 2017 Whittier Fire, is nearly finished being rebuilt and plans to welcome students back in April with an updated curriculum as well as returning traditions.
The Outdoor School first opened in 1985 and, before the Whittier Fire, since has been hosting fifth- and sixth-graders from different schools for its four-day, three-night science camp program that focuses on environmental education and disconnecting from phones and technology to be immersed in nature.
Ahead of the program’s reopening, Amanda Chick was hired in June to lead the Outdoor School as the new education director.
Chick’s first experience with the Outdoor School was as a naturalist in the 2016-17 season when she “fell in love” with the program and the Santa Barbara area.
“My soul just never left this program,” Chick said. “I am just blown away that I got asked back to be the director of the program. … When I think about the kids being here, I get really excited, and my heart gets really full. This is like my jam, my passion.”
When the Whittier Fire engulfed the Outdoor School in 2017, it destroyed at least 47 of the 50 structures on the property, including the dorms, staff housing and the nature center. The dining hall was one of the few buildings to survive.
Rebuilding began in 2018, but Program Director Glen Goddard said COVID-19 greatly affected the process, as workers were ordered to stay home until guidelines allowed for outdoor work to resume. Goddard added that it took awhile to get the momentum back because of COVID-19.
Now, more than six years after the Whittier Fire, the Outdoor School is almost ready to bring in kids again.
Two of the four dorms are complete, each able to house 32 students — and side rooms in each dorm cabin to host two chaperones or cabin leaders — and most of the staff housing is also nearing completion. All of the dorms will be accessible and include their own bathrooms and showers.
The other two dorms are built, but the interiors are still being worked on.
Meanwhile, Chick has been working on updating the program’s curriculum, with plans to bring students to the upcoming Chumash Cultural Museum one day per week. Other activities include a hike to teach about fire and water ecology, and mountain biking trails have been put in throughout the property to offer mountain biking as a special activity for students to choose.
While Chick said she is excited for the additions, she’s equally enthused to bring back the tried-and-true components and traditions, such as the nine-mile hike, the night hike and Old Man Murphy. Other returning activities include the geology hike, the plant and animal hike, the Chumash cultural hike, archery, campfires and much more.
“[Students] just know how impactful this week is in their entire school curriculum — kids always look back like, ‘I remember my sixth-grade science camp trip’ years later, and it is so special getting them to hike and do things they would maybe not get to normally do and see the stars,” Chick said. “Just being able to provide the space where kids can get off their phones, off their screens, off their computers and actually just get into the woods — I love it.”
Chick and Goddard also spoke about how much they enjoy working with the other people on the Outdoor School’s staff, and how excited they are to hire a whole new group of naturalists.
“That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Outdoor School, summer camps, all that — working with the staff,” Goddard said. “[There are] a lot of zany people, a lot of fun, dedicated people.”
Chick said she has met several “really genuine humans” while working at the Outdoor School, and there’s always great collaboration.
“We’re all here for the same mission — getting kids connected with nature, getting them outdoors, having them respect nature,” Chick said. “I have ideas, but they’re going to have other ideas that I can’t even think of, which is great.”
Chick said they will start putting out job descriptions in November.
The Outdoor School is still enrolling schools to come in April and May, and information on enrolling a school is available on its website here.
Donations are also welcome, as Goddard and Chick said they are still looking for funding to help finish buildings, as well as donations to help with the scholarship fund for students.
“We’re not going to turn away a youth because they can’t afford it,” Goddard said. “We’ll find a way.”
More information on the Outdoor School’s rebuilding process and on donating can be found here.