Outside of Boulder, up a single lane dirt road, and past a quiet pond, you’ll find this special place tucked away: Balarat. Balarat is Denver Public Schools’ outdoor education center that runs year round.
“As a high schooler, you can volunteer to go and work up here and help teach fifth graders all about like the cool place that is Colorado,” said Denver Online High School junior Max Allen.
“We have several teachers that work in our program that are assigned to the Balarat Outdoor Education Program full time. So we work with fifth graders that come here with their classes, week in and week out, and also work with the high school leaders that are assigned with each group,” said Erik Hurst, a teacher at Balarat for the past twenty-four years.
Allen is one of the leaders at Balarat, about to get started in leading the first one-mile wildlife exploration hike of the day. “We’re going to be learning about some of the grasses that are native to this area, what type of trees grow here, what type of like bushes or plants grow here, and what animals eat those plants, and what the eco system sort of looks like,” Allen expressed.
Allen is joined by fellow Denver Online High School students, like Thomas Schnebly who is leading another group of students ahead of Allen.
“We have contact people at each, at several, of the local high schools, and they recruit young people from 10th grade, 11th grade, and 12th grade. So they come up for a training period at the beginning of the semester, an overnight training period with other high school students from around the district, and then they are assigned to come back to work with particular elementary schools for six more days in the semester,” Hurst noted.
The high school leaders even get course credit too, Allen expressing, “We get five credits for every single semester we are working here.”
Typically, students come up for three days and two nights, participating in multiple hikes across the countryside and a plethora of activities. While some activities require boldness, like the high ropes challenge or the zip line students can fly down, others are simply focused on hands-on education.
From candle making to learning about animal traps, Allen said the fifth graders would be “learning about like pioneering with regards to like the people that moved out to middle of the Midwest to like sort of start their own plot of land and what it sort of meant to live in a one room lodge.”
They even get to try building their own tipi, Allen noting, “We’re going to be talking about the Native Americans that lived on this land sort of before it had been handed down so many times before DPS got ahold of it.”
“So the high school leaders really are integral to our program. We couldn’t do the program without them. They make it fun for the 5th graders, they allow us to break into smaller activity groups, and they actually lead and teach different activities while they’re up here,” Hurst said.
The Wi-Fi in the Balarat lodge and the flexibility to complete coursework ahead of time makes it possible for Denver Online students to take advantage of this great opportunity. Allen said, “Thanks to Denver Online, I can make sure that I have all my work done for this week so I’m not really super stressed while I’m up here to come down or have to do a whole bunch of work. I’m ahead, so while I’m up here, I can sort of just like do my job and teach these kids and not be super focused on school work, which is nice because in a traditional high school, you’d have to make up the three days you’re gone. But for me, that’s not as worrisome as it is in a traditional high school.”
And so they are able to go, into the depths of the woods and up onto the tip tops of mountains, with time to reflect. Allen expressed why he most enjoys working in the Balarat program, saying, “I feel like one of my favorite parts about like working in the outdoors in general is probably just like the pay off because usually you are hiking for a full day and there’s like something that you’re working towards, and it’s like a goal that is set for you. And so like in a way, that’s sort of like life. You have to keep setting your goals and keep raising your standards so you like go to places that you’d like to someplace be.”