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Our Column

  En español

A Breath of Fresh Air
By Javier Sierra

The schoolyear is over, the grades are in- but it remains to be seen whether the Latino community will pass a crucial subject: our children's education.

We have heard the statistics. The Hispanic community is the least educated in the country. We suffer from exorbitant dropout rates that are four times higher than those of non-Hispanic whites.

But Latinos can now breathe a breath of fresh air. A study released this month by California's Department of Education found that the combination of education and the outdoors has a revitalizing effect on our children.

The report concludes that outdoor education programs increased math and science scores by 27 percent, and that this increase in knowledge lasted for up to ten weeks after the end of the program.

The study is particularly relevant for our community throughout the country because the 255 participants were selected from four schools where almost 90 percent of the students are Latinos.

The improvement, however, was not only detected on the academic side. Researchers revealed that participants experienced a remarkable improvement in their self-esteem, conflict resolution, relationships with their peers, problem solving, motivation to learn and behavior in the classroom.

Also, according to the survey, Spanish-speaking students -58 percent of the total- showed significant improvements, larger than those of their English-speaking counterparts, in cooperation, leadership, relationships with peers and motivation to learn.

This positive influence was also evident at home. Participants' parents observed that their children behaved better, showing more respect for nature and an insistence on recycling.

Moreover, the vast majority of participating teachers emphasized the study's positive outcomes, including an increase in their students' confidence and self-esteem, more positive relationships among students, and reduced discipline and behavioral problems.

The study's results, however, did not surprise a Latino student whose life was changed by outdoor education.

"We have known that outdoor education programs have had a huge positive influence for years," says Juan Martínez, a young resident of one of Los Angeles' toughest barrios. "In 2002, my first contact with the outdoors was the spark that lit my life's passion."

At that time, Juan's life was empty of dreams and projects, and school was just another obstacle to get past before he could get a job. He was walking a thin line, about to drop out and sentenced to fail.

But, curiously, Juan signed up for an outing to Wyoming's Grand Tetons as a result of a punishment.

"I was in school detention, and one of my teachers recommended that I take the course in order to gain credits," he remembers. "I had no idea that those two weeks were going to leave a mark on me, that I was about to discover something called passion."

"It was the first time I saw live fish in a river, the first time I saw a bald eagle flying over my head. At night there were so many stars it was impossible to count them," he says.

Juan found his guiding star during that outing. His grades experienced a remarkable improvement. He moved into advanced placement courses and eventually was the first member of his family to graduate from high school.

Today, Juan is an advisor to a group organizing outings for students, attends a community college, and dreams of becoming an environmental lawyer.

But he warns there is a lot of work to be done.

"The young people with access to these programs are a very small minority. We need to increase funding so that more students can reap the benefits of outdoor education," he says.

In fact, only 15 percent of the California's students get to participate in environmental education programs, and most of them come from wealthy areas.

"This experience makes a difference for everyone, from the worst gang member to the best A student," concludes Juan.

It remains to be seen whether the country's educators can learn this lesson.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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