As an institution, Dunn School in Los Olivos is going through a situation that students might face in its popular Outdoor Education program — weathering a storm.
The private school’s board of trustees, in a seven-month effort to reach a balanced budget, voted last month to reduce funding for outdoor education and combine it with other programs in a five-part leadership curriculum.
That announcement, though unpopular with some students, parents and alumni, was consistent with a preliminary decision the board had made in December.
Head of School Mike Beck also met in January with parents of current students and, among other things, pointed out that the costs of the outdoor program “considerably exceeded $200,000,” said Marketing and Communications Director Paul Larsen.
However, since hearing about the December decision some alumni, parents and students have reacted angrily, saying that Dunn’s outdoor education is a life-changing program that needs to be preserved.
They said experiences including backpacking in Yosemite National Park and kayaking on the Kern River were the most important part of their education at Dunn, teaching them life lessons about personal development, teamwork and leadership skills.
Some of them began a “Friends of Dunn Outdoor Education” page on the social network website Facebook and began collecting tax-deductible donations to an escrow account for the program through another website, www.friendsofdunnoe.org.
Dunn students begin the outdoor program in sixth grade and continue until they graduate from high school. During the seven-year curriculum, students keep a diary or journal of their experiences, which are mailed to them after college graduation.
In a letter distributed after the March 11 board meeting, Beck assured parents, alumni and others that he is eager to work with those who have contributed to the endowment fund to support outdoor education.
The board wants to “develop a sustainable funding stream” for outdoor education, he added, and he’s “excited that members of our community have already started to contribute to endowment funding” for the program.
“The board determined by unanimous consent that outdoor education, in its current form, has a significant impact on financial resources and affects the operation of all other educational programs at the school,” Larsen said. “For example, the cost of the outdoor program is 4.5 times that of our music program, 2.5 times that of the athletic program, and 1.5 times the cost of our textbooks.”
The five newly integrated components of the school’s leadership curriculum, formerly separate initiatives, are on-campus seminars and speakers, student leadership, community service, global leadership, and outdoor education.
“Going forward we are forming a group that will include faculty, staff, alumni, students and parents to act on behalf of all stakeholders to foster clarifying dialog and understanding of the evolution of the Outdoor Education curriculum and its integration into the overall Leadership Initiative and to help develop considerations for its continued evolution,” Larsen added in an email message.
However, some alumni remain unsatisfied, and some students talk about disappointment and tension on campus.
Aiden Terry, a senior, said the outdoor program has taught him more about himself than anything he’s learned in the classroom.
Since students returned from Christmas break in early January, there has been a “very tangible feeling” of tension on the Los Olivos campus because of the outdoor education program changes, he added.
There is also deep disappointment among students who believe they were not consulted before and during the decision-making process, Terry said.
Beck said input — including 300 survey responses — from parents, students, faculty and alumni, as well as recommendations from an outdoor education subcommittee that included members of all four of those groups, served as the basis for decisions on the outdoor education program’s new role.
Even so, another senior, a member of the kayaking and camping team who asked to be anonymous, said students were caught off guard by the changes to the program, particularly because they were not taken into consideration.
“Overall, I think all the students are let down we weren’t told about this,” she said.
The outdoor education program has taught her respect for herself and others and given her the confidence to know she can tackle any test in the classroom after having climbed a mountain, she said.
Arissa Seagal, a junior from Santa Ynez, said being on outdoor education trips reveals who a person really is.
“You can’t get that experience anywhere else,” she said.
Larsen said reducing the funding for outdoor education was a matter of balancing priorities but also more than a financial decision.
The outdoor program, he said, “has gotten away from the founder’s intentions of involving the school’s faculty in the program. Temporary personnel have been hired in supervisory roles who by definition do not know the students, the school’s mission, core values, and overall curriculum as well as our faculty,” he said.
Another spending priority is the school’s scholarship program, which is crucial to the school’s “commitment to maintaining a diverse student population,” he added. “Had we continued with the full costs of the outdoor education program, financial aid would have been significantly reduced.
“The board had already made some extremely difficult decisions that resulted in faculty and staff lay-offs a year ago and a freeze on salaries and spending. This had to be done in order to balance the budget and for the school to continue to offer our core programs,” Larsen added.
Randy Judycki, the program’s founder and director, was dismissed as part of the restructuring. The certified rock guide and whitewater kayaking instructor told a reporter he was not allowed to talk about the situation under the terms of a severance agreement.
School officials say that most of the outdoor education savings will come from hiring fewer professional guides and having more teachers lead the trips and activities.
Cody Pape, a 2001 Dunn graduate, said there is a general sense of frustration among alumni who feel there was a lack of transparency as the decisions were made behind closed doors.
Trevor Povah, a 1999 Dunn graduate, echoed those comments and said that the way Judycki went out, without recognition for more than a quarter-century of leading the program, is tragic.
“It’s just so sad,” he said.
The outdoor program at Dunn, a co-ed, college-prep boarding and day school established in 1957, was the first boarding school to be accredited by the Association of Experimental Education and remains one of only a handful of accredited schools in the country, according to the school.