Private school in Michigan planning outdoor, camp-like model for fall

Posted at 1:13 PM, Aug 13, 2020

OXFORD, Mich. - Upland Hills School in Oxford, Michigan, doesn't look like your traditional classroom setting; that's because it's not. But it is where around 90 students will be learning come fall, including Alicia Stewart's two sons.

The independent tuition-based school has always used a very "nature forward" approach to learning, and this year, due to COVID-19, will rely on that model even more.

“I did venture out to Target just recently and I saw all the back-to-school supplies and I don’t really have to get any of that," Stewart said.

What is on her back-to-school list, is bug spray, camping pads, and hats with mosquito netting.

"What I’m doing now is I’m searching REI, I’m searching Patagonia, I’m going to my local camping stores," she said.

Upland Hills has been around for 48 years providing a non-traditional approach to learning for kids as young as four, and now, through high school age.

The school has a ropes course and a CSA farm on its property, so kids are also provided with true "farm-to-table" meals.

“We have a long history of being a nature-based school and we’re in this beautiful setting, 30 acres in the woods here. So to be outside for 2-3 hours a day is really typical for our students," said Director of School Rob Himburg.

Because of COVID, outdoor learning will be central this fall. However, the school does also offers online learning.

“This is going to be my new classroom for the coming year," said teacher Robert Crowe, walking around one of the school's former gardens.

Social distancing should be easy outdoors and class sizes are always pretty small, given that Upland Hills only has around 70 families.

Crowe said he wants to make sure students can get their work done outside too.

“To be able to focus outdoors is not easy. So the solution I hit on was for every child to have their own individual tent," he said. Crowe said being able to learn in the outdoors gives students a unique sense of agency, something that traditional classrooms don't always provide.

Students may also learn in larger, four-season tents, which can be heated in the winter.

The school also has an indoor space, in the event teachers and students would need to go inside.

Lessons will usually circle back to nature in some way, so that students are learning basic skills like mathematics in a hands-on way, like building a greenhouse Himburg said.

Tuition for Upland Hills is a little more than $11,000 annually, making this out of reach for some families.

For Stewart, whose kids started at Upland Hills last year, this approach to learning has been really special and offered her sons an education she doesn't think they could get elsewhere.

Classes at Upland Hills begin Aug. 17.

Statewide, many districts are still in the process of deciding what approach is best for teachers and students: online learning, face-to-face, or a combination of the two. Gov. Whitmer is leaving the decision up to individual districts as long as Michigan remains in phase 4 of re-opening.

This story was originally reported by Jenn Schanz at WXYZ.