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By Kendra Sitton

September 27, 2020 (Crest) -- Crest Elementary School has been shrinking for years, with less and less students enrolled every single year since 2003. Today, however, they have a list of over 90 families wishing to enroll in the school, some from outside the Cajon Valley Union School District. The difference between 2020 and the last 17 years is one program that makes outdoor learning a key part of education at the school.

The school in a rural area east of El Cajon held its first Crest Outdoor Immersion program over 10 days this summer. School officials plan to bring the program into a year-round setting in a two-year pilot program where students spend three days in the classroom each week and two days exploring the outdoors. The classrooms will have multiple grades in them.

At the first in-person Cajon Valley Union School District meeting since the pandemic began, the support for the program from students, parents, teachers and members of the board was evident as supporters wearing blue shirts filled the board room with chairs spaced apart.

New Crest Elementary Principal Sabrina Copeland and a teacher who originally had the idea, Mindy Toretto, presented how the pilot program went this summer as learning extended outside the classroom.

Over 10 days, 66 of the 89 kids enrolled at Crest went on nine outdoor adventures. Six kids learned to swim for the first time. Others had the first-time experience of paddle boarding or surfing. Learning activities such as CPR training and dissecting a squid on the beach were interspersed with the fun activities.

The program is a natural fit for Crest, a rural area where a community that values the outdoors resides. The location does pose one complication: transportation costs to take the students from the school to where they are spending the day are higher than in urban areas closer to destinations.

The school is fundraising and forming partnerships to ensure the two-year pilot program is a success. In addition to transportation costs, the school is seeking to hire an outdoor education facilitator.

Some private schools already incorporate outdoor learning into the curriculum. Other programs like the YMCA and summer camps also connect kids with nature. However, all of those cost money. A public school running such a program will mean more kids could have access to new settings.

The teachers, parents and principal who came in support of the program hope it will lead to deeper learning among the students. During the summer pilot program, students learned about how waves worked and then played in the waves. As the water pushed and pulled on them, one of them exclaimed that they “got” it for the first time.

Parents of kids who struggle with academics spoke out about how it could help their kids enjoy school for the very first time.

The board commended the program but did note that with all similar programs, the difficulty is always in sustaining funding.

“With COVID everything is going outdoors. What a perfect opportunity for us,” said CVUSD board member Karen Clark-Meija. “The funding is always going to be a challenge.”

View videos of the Crest Outdoor Immersion program:

In other news…

The board awarded a $2,522,008 contract to Hamel Contracting, Inc. to bring two new modular classrooms to replace portable ones at Naranca Elementary school.

The board and people in attendance were excited about a positive article in the New York Times about Cajon Valley Union School District opening schools in person. The board reiterated its commitment to keeping school in person.

Although most local districts have opted to rely on online learning for the fall semester to avoid risks to students, staff and teachers during the pandemic, board Chair Tamara Otero stated, “The fallout of not being in school is far worse than the risk of COVID.”

People who attended the school board meeting asked why the board went back to in-person only meetings without a livestream option. For the first time, they had been able to attend every single meeting while it was online. Many people who did not attend in-person also likely utilized the online option. The secretary of the superintendent explained that the board messed up their microphones during previous attempts to live stream so they will only be providing recordings after the meeting.


Kendra Sitton is a local editor at San Diego Community Newspaper Group who also serves as the editor of San Diego Uptown News and Downtown News. A freelance reporter for ECM and other publications, she has won awards in 2019 for her articles on San Diego Police Department policies regarding transgender civilians and other LGBTQ issues. She holds a degree in mass communications with minors in sociology and global cultural studies at Concordia University Irvine.Her coverage for ECM has included border, immigrant and refugee communities, land use issues and the recovery of Deerhorn Valley ten years after the Harris wildfire.

East County Magazine thanks the Facebook Journalism Project for support through its COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program to help  sustain reporting on vulnerable local populations and rural communities. Learn more at #FacebookJournalismProject. 

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It's good for students

Students benefit from real-life experience, in teaching outside the classroom. This from Vanderbilt University . .quote. . .Teaching and learning experiences that take place outside of the confines of the classroom walls have a range of benefits for both students and instructors. When students are asked to put into practice “in the real world” what they have theorized about from behind a desk, the result is a student-centric learning experience that enhances learning and fosters personal and social development.