FONTANA — A new leader of Fontana Elementary School’s outdoor education program says she might not be “the best person for the job,” if officials undo changes she has made to the popular student retreat.
School Board President Tom Labus is assembling a group to review the outdoor education program during its first year under new co-leaders Jayme Jones and Kristen Rabe.
Noreen Lamsam, who ran the program for 38 years before retiring last year, might be among those Labus enlists to conduct the new evaluation.
In a letter to the school board reviewed at the board’s March 18 meeting, Jones wrote that outdoor education needed some updates, including a new location.
If the school board decides to go back to what was done in the past, Jones wrote: “Then I feel I am not the best person for the job.”
The outdoor education program itself will go forward as planned from April 29 to May 3. But after the camp is completed, the school board wants to evaluate the the program to make sure it meets expectations.
The board evaluates all new programs and the board wants to review this year’s outdoor education program because it is different from last year.
Labus said this is no ordinary program.
“The outdoor education program is one of our signature programs,” he said.
The evaluation will be done by a three-person team, he said, possibly including Lamsam. Labus said the program’s former leader could provide what he described as a historical perspective in the evaluation.
Lamsam said she does not know what the board is planning, but she is willing to participate.
“I don’t where it’s headed,” she said.
Referring to outdoor education, she said: “That’s just the love of my life.”
During the annual retreat, Fontana fifth-graders stay at a camp during which they attend field trips and are taught about the local ecology and science. Students canoe, do rock climbing and take field trips.
They are watched over by their teachers and counselors selected from Big Foot High School students.
Outdoor classes are conducted Monday through Wednesday. On Thursday, parents are invited to the youth camp, where the youngsters share what they learned, and put on a skit.
After Lamsam’s retirement, the program was turned over to Jones, a fifth-grade teacher, and Rabe, a science teacher.
In her letter to the school board, Jones wrote that she felt the plan to evaluate the program questioned her ability as a teacher.
“It was never my intention to completely change the program,” she wrote.
But, she said, curriculum has changed since the outdoor education program started 59 years ago, “and some updates needed to happen.” Jones said she and Rabe spent weekends and summers over the past year aligning the goals of outdoor education with the school’s fifth-grade science curriculum.
Rabe told school board members March 18 that while she understands the board’s desire to evaluate the program, she said the evaluation has to be an objective one.
She suggested that the district invite teachers from other districts that have outdoor education programs.
“Maybe someone from a different district who might have a different perspective,” she said.
Among the changes that the new leadership has implemented involves the past practice of students posting what they learned on a bulletin board.
This year, each student instead will be given a GoPro camera to take pictures and videos of what they learn, to be edited into a video to be shown to parents when they visit the camp.
Another part of the program, plant and leaf identification, is being de-emphasized, and students instead will focus on the state tree, animal, plant and flower, all of which they will look for on field trips.
According to Jones’ letter, other changes include:
n The number of teachers supervising outdoor education will drop from three to two, and instead “guest” teachers will come from the school to make presentations to students at the camp.
n Big Foot students who want to be counselors will have to meet grade requirements and complete regular homework during the camp week.
n The camp will be moved from Lake Geneva Youth Camp in Lake Geneva to Conference Point Center in Williams Bay — a move that Jones said will give the group better access to the lakfront.
n Wednesday night was reserved for skits that involved the counselors pulling pranks on the fifth-graders, but the pranks will come to an end and the counselors instead will incorporate their skits into nightly bonfires.
n Skits were once written and practiced on Thursdays and performing for parents on Thursday evening. To shorten the day for students, teachers and counselors, Jones said, the skits will be planned throughout the week, and Thursday morning instead will be spent taking a field trip to the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy.
n In the past, awards were handed out to students at the end of the week, but instead will be distributed for good behavior and accomplishments as they happen.
School District Administrator Sara Norton told school board members March 18 that said she did not think a review of the program was necessary.
Norton said program changes were reviewed and approved in advance by a committee of staff and school board members.
However, Norton suggested creating an evaluation partnership with another school, probably Reek Elementary School, which also has an outdoor education program.
Labus said no one had yet been named to the evaluation committee.
Contacted later about the situation, Jones declined to comment.
“At this time, the only comment I’d like to make is that I am busy preparing my students and putting the final touches on what is sure to be a very memorable and exciting week,” she said.
Fontana’s outdoor education program was started in 1960 by teacher Ernest Roeker.
Labus called it “a generational program.” Parents went through outdoor education, and in some cases grandparents went through outdoor education, and now their children and grandchildren will go through it.
“They take a high interest in the program,” he said.