An outdoor education program started by Bookcliff Middle School teachers and Colorado Parks and Wildlife is one step closer to reaching every sixth-grader in School District 51.

The Outdoor Wilderness Lab started seven years ago when teachers and CPW officers took 33 sixth-graders on a five-day class trip to connect them with the outdoors.

Every year since, program leaders have worked to bring more and more students into the outdoors for lessons that range from biology and forestry to archery and hunter safety.

Bookcliff Middle School teacher Greg Weckenbrock, Principal Jim Butterfield and district coordinator of innovative programs Maria Deuel got the go-ahead from Board of Education members on Tuesday to expand the program.

Board members agreed to fund the program with an initial $200,000 to get a temporary facility up and running in Gateway. In years past, the program has run out of existing camps on the Grand Mesa.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife will fund an additional $100,000 and $25,000 is expected to come from student tuition.

Weckenbrock and program organizers will immediately start working on a temporary OWL camp on the same property as the Gateway School so that the program can double the number of sixth-graders who can attend this spring, from 200 to 400.

The program will be shorter than its typical five-day experience while it's in a temporary facility.

Within four years, OWL leaders said they want to build a permanent facility in Gateway that will not only be able to give outdoor lessons to the nearly 1,400 sixth-graders in District 51, but to students of all ages and to other organizations, as well.

Weckenbrock, Deuel and Butterfield said they were surprised and excited after the board's decision on Tuesday.

"To go from serving 200 kids to exponentially larger in the space of seven minutes at a board meeting is pretty awesome," Butterfield said. "Our kids will get the best possible outdoor experience that will supplement not only science but their entire sixth-grade year."

Board President Tom Parrish said the combination of the program's benefits, plenty of outside support from local and state organizations and the existing Gateway facility factored into the decision.

"It's going to be an amazing opportunity for every sixth-grader in our district to experience," Parrish said. "There's a lot of support for us to move forward, and we felt this is an opportunity that's going to reach every kid."

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