Camp Silverton, a U.S. Forest Service property along the Mountain Loop Highway near Verlot, was used for decades by the Everett School District. The district no longer uses the outdoor camp, which has been closed since 2003.

Madison Elementary bringing back 5th-grade camp experience

More than a field trip, outdoor education camp is a rite of passage. It’s an exciting entree to science. It offers a fresh view of the world’s possibilities. And before the stresses of middle school, it’s a place to strengthen friendships.

For many local elementary schools, a getaway to overnight camp is a given. That opportunity hasn’t been a given at Everett’s Madison Elementary School for nearly a decade.

Yet on May 25, all of Madison’s fifth-graders will take a ferry to Orcas Island for a three-day stay at Camp Orkila. The waterfront camp is operated by the YMCA of Greater Seattle.

“These things can be life-changing experiences,” Madison Principal Kimberly Gilmore said. “Learning out of a book is different. It’s not like we’re taking them to Disneyland.”

Gilmore is new to Madison this year. She’s been in education more than 20 years, recently as principal of Silver Firs Elementary School.

At that suburban school, Gilmore made sure kids went to outdoor camp. With the financial support of parents and a strong PTA, taking several classrooms to overnight camp isn’t so hard to do.

Madison is a Title I school, a federal designation meaning that a high number of students come from low-income households. Gilmore said nearly 80 percent of Madison students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 175 of the school’s 460 students are English language learners. And 39 children at Madison are counted as homeless by the state, she said.

Despite the challenges, Madison’s fifth-graders — about 80 kids from three classes and some in special education — will spend May 25-27 at Camp Orkila. They’ll stay in open-air cabins and walk the trails. They will learn about safe risks on a challenge course, and take seven 90-minute classes. More than 20 adults will also make the trip.

Christy Shiers, Camp Orkila’s senior director of environmental science programs, said Madison will get a 50 percent camp scholarship from the YMCA of Greater Seattle.

The rest, about $10,000, is the goal of a fundraising campaign started by Madison’s staff. Donors are asked to send checks, payable to the Everett Public Schools Foundation, to Gilmore at the school.

Cheryl Hendrickson, a paraeducator who leads reading groups at Madison, spearheaded the effort. While working at Everett’s Garfield Elementary School in 2010, Hendrickson organized a scrap metal drive. It raised thousands of dollars, reducing what parents had to pay for camp.

At Madison, “we want to encourage kiddoes in all the things they can do,” Hendrickson said.

For decades, Everett students went to Camp Silverton for outdoor education. The former camp, 32 acres on the Mountain Loop Highway near Verlot, is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The Everett School District, which once owned the Silverton facilities, hasn’t used the camp in more than a decade.

“It needed a lot of maintenance to be safe,” said Mary Waggoner, the Everett district’s spokeswoman. “The biggest worry, there was no communication for emergencies.”

Outdoor camp “is not a must,” Waggoner said. “Schools are often opting out of the overnight trips.” Day trip alternatives include the Seattle Aquarium, the Pacific Science Center and the Museum of Flight. The district also has access to the Lively Environmental Center in Mill Creek.

Waggoner said Whittier and Jefferson elementary students went to Camp Killoqua in Stanwood last fall, trips funded by PTA groups. Emerson’s PTA and a fundraiser will pay for an April trip to Cedar Springs Camp near Lake Stevens.

In the district’s south region, Woodside Elementary School goes to a daylong space camp, while students at Cedar Wood, Forest View, Mill Creek, Penny Creek and Silver Firs all go to overnight camps.

With a very small PTA at Madison, “our staff has sort of stepped up to help,” Gilmore said.

Shiers, who once taught high school biology in Bellevue, sees what being outside does for kids.

“Some have never walked a beach,” she said. Social barriers can come down just by eating meals in the lodge. “All that ‘I’m too cool for this’ — instead, they realize their own self-worth,” Shiers said. “We hope that students who don’t find success in the classroom find some success here.”

At Madison, Hendrickson hopes donors step up. It will cost about $110 to send one child to Orkila. Even if all the money isn’t raised on time, the trip is on.

“We’re going,” Gilmore said. “We’ll figure it out.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

How to help

The staff at Everett’s Madison Elementary School is raising money to send fifth-graders to Camp Orkila on Orcas Island. The goal is $10,000. Donations may be sent to Principal Kimberly Gilmore, Madison Elementary School, 616 Pecks Dr., Everett, WA 98203. Make checks payable to Everett Public Schools Foundation, noting “Madison fifth-grade camp” on the check.

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