LAND O'LAKES — For two years now, the Pasco County school district has run a free summer camp where students can spot deer, follow gopher tortoise tracks and seine for saltwater creatures. The goal has been to give hands-on science lessons to Pasco's lower income students — the kids whose families can least afford a nature camp or trip to the museum.
Nearly 1,000 fourth- and fifth-graders have spent a week at the school district's four environmental centers. The lessons from the great outdoors led to stronger science test scores at school, educators found.
The programs have proved so successful that they recently won a major national award: the National School Board Association's 2011 grand prize for education innovation among school districts of more than 20,000 students.
But recognition and results might not be enough to spare the camps from budget cuts.
"This summer it's happening because we're working on our 2010-11 grant money," said Elena Garcia, Pasco's director of federal programs, who helped establish the camps. "I probably won't be able to do this next year because we're likely to get cuts to Title I funding."
Under the Obama Administration, the federal Department of Education has begun requiring competitive application for many of its grants for low-income education services. That has led to fears that some of the smaller ones, such as the $164,000 grant supporting the summer camp, might get eliminated.
Changes to the federal No Child Left Behind law also could limit the resources available for such activities.
Demand, however, has continued to grow. The district has seen an increase in the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a key poverty indicator.
At the same time, curriculum specialists looking to expand opportunities for students amid shrinking local and state revenue have asked Garcia if she might be able to offer Title I summer camps in additional areas, such as fine arts.
"I would have loved to do it," Garcia said. "But there is only so much money to go around."
Garcia was thrilled to have the camps gain praise nationally for creativity in fostering student achievement.
"They keep us remembering why we are in this," she said, noting the student excitement she witnessed while visiting the summer sessions. "Those camps keep it real."
School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley, who flew to San Francisco last weekend at her own expense to pick up the Magna Award, said the presentation before thousands of board members from across the country showcased Pasco County as a leader. She figured other districts will come looking for ways to create similar programs.
Hurley said the Pasco board wants the summer camps to continue as long as possible.
"We have even budgeted for more children to attend this year. … It is a best practice," she said. "But I can't promise anything in years to come."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.