News » Strokes & Plugs

Class outside, anyone?

A small, private program makes going to school enjoyable



NATURE LEARNIN’ :  (Left to right) Instructor Brian Engleton, Jack, instructor Susan Pendergast, Troy, Doran, Alexa, Grant, Royce, and Isaac create masks. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • NATURE LEARNIN’ : (Left to right) Instructor Brian Engleton, Jack, instructor Susan Pendergast, Troy, Doran, Alexa, Grant, Royce, and Isaac create masks.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, students of the Outside Now Academy are charged with a purpose with real-world application. Working with the Land Conservancy, the nine students, ages 13 to 19, are restoring a mile and a half of steelhead trout habitat in the San Luis Creek.

“We let the kids come up with project ideas that will benefit the community,” teacher Brian Engleton said. “They expressed interest in wanting to help endangered species, and we were able to connect with the Land Conservancy.”

School Director Donna Helete began the program seven years ago with just a few families, offering occasional outdoor experience days. Growing from its early days, the academy now offers a full curriculum. Far from typical public school classes, the academy offers instruction in bird language, animal tracking, woodworking, and edible and medicinal plant education. Students are encouraged to be active, creative, seeking learners.

“The school is based on connection—with each other, the natural world, and society,” Helete said. “It is about living sustainably as part of the world. That humans are not separate from the environment.”

Educator Susan Pendergast shares her love of words and their sounds, selecting excerpts from classic literature in her teaching exercises. The students emulate the style to create their own selections, an exciting process shaping them into solid writers.

Outside Now doesn’t have a specific location. The week is spent either in academic classes in a rented space in Los Osos or on a farm in San Luis. On the three-quarter-acre farm, students grow wheat, corn, beans, tomatoes, and melons among other produce. And yes, they use the fruits and vegetables to cook up inventive dishes.

A highly anticipated backpacking trip happens once a year. Two of the young boys (who were particularly inspired) received media attention for hiking the 211-mile-long John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

An upcoming Imperative Skills Camp in Santa Rosa teaches indigenous crafts, including bow and basket making, primitive cooking, and canoe crafting.

Engleton said of his students: “Having real, purposeful assignments empowers and gives them confidence. They know who they are. I think outsiders are most impressed by the students’ maturity and the sense of solidity and peacefulness they emanate.”

 Returning to the public school system after such an alternative learning experience, though, can have its challenges. One academy student began attending Cuesta College at age 15 but returned to the academy when he saw the progress his old buddies were making.

Spending a lot of time together, conflict is inevitable. Basic skills for communication and conflict resolution are woven into the curriculum.

“These skills aren’t on standardized tests,” Helete said, “but they go with you through life. They are critical for your job, your home. There is surprisingly little conflict among the group. We are like a family; everyone has a lot of love for one other.”

The Outside Now Academy is looking for a more permanent home base and also has space for three more students next year. Applications are accepted in the spring. For more information and to see what the students are up to, visit

Fast facts

Savvi Skin & Body Studio is hosting Save the Ta-Ta’s on Oct. 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fifty percent of all proceeds from eyebrow waxes and lash extensions will be donated to Enhancement, Inc., a nonprofit that works with breast cancer survivors. For more information, visit or call 544-0142. Savvi Skin & Body Studio is at 1530 Monterey St., suite A, in San Luis Obispo.

United Cerebral Palsy of SLO County is hosting its inaugural Walk and Roll Fundraiser on Nov. 13, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Laguna Lake Park. Registration is free, although a lunch from Splash Café is available for purchase, as are Walk and Roll T-shirts. If you’re interested in sponsoring or participating in the event, contact Kristine at 543-2039 or visit

Intern Alycia Kiley wrote this week’s Strokes and Plugs. Contact her via Executive Editor Ryan Miller at

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