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A Rite of Passage

Feb. 21, 2019

Balarat Outdoor Education Center provides students in Denver Public Schools with transformative outdoor educational experiences—inciting curiosity of the natural world, exploring clear night skies with city children who may have never seen the big dipper and encouraging students to connect with their environments.

This year marks its 50th anniversary. Patrick Emery, manager of Balarat, says that the school has been around for so long that a lot of people in the district consider it a rite of passage. He would know—he’s been involved with Balarat for more than 30 years. Emery started as an intern during his undergraduate studies. A short while later, he accepted a job as an outdoor educator at Balarat and the rest is history.

“What hooked me, and continues to do so, was, and is, the great group of people—the staff—who believe in outdoor education, the light in students’ eyes when they get a real-world connection to something they’ve read about or studied and the opportunity to work in the most interactive, wonderful and wonder-full classroom available,” said Emery.

Balarat engages DPS students in lessons about place-based science, western history, environmental studies and outdoor leadership skills. During its five decades, Balarat has served more than 400,000 students and now averages 10,000 students a year.

“We work to have students understand the connections in the natural world—to look at things as a whole rather than in discrete subjects or pieces,” said Emery. “Taking students out of their comfort zone pushes them to see themselves and the world around them through a different lens.”

Balarat provides students with outdoor educational opportunities for as little as $13 for a two-day trip to $33.50 for a three-day trip with a sliding scale depending on free- or reduced-lunch status.

The mission and educational approach of Balarat has become even more important in a quickly modernizing world. As classrooms and homes fill with screens, streaming videos and personal student laptops, Balarat reminds us that mother nature is often the best teacher.

“As we become more and more isolated from the natural world it is important to have directed experiences with nature,” said Emery. “As Rachel Carson wrote, ‘If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.’  We are privileged to be in a position to be assistive to that idea and, as our vision suggests, we seek to ignite curiosity and confidence.”

Balarat provides an unforgettable experience for DPS students. Share your support for outdoor education in our district by participating in an upcoming fundraiser—5-9 p.m. Tues., March 5 at Chipotle Mexican Grill, 371 E. Alameda Ave., Denver, CO. Mention “Balarat” at the register and a portion of your purchase will go toward Balarat.