With construction more than 50 percent complete, the dream of a new $7 million outdoor learning center in Monticello, Utah, is quickly becoming reality.
With thousands of children in the Four Corners to draw from, and an estimated 2 million tourists driving by every year on a world-renowned national park swing, a small group with a big idea is excited about the possibilities for this new building just north of Monticello’s town limits.
The Four Corners School of Outdoor Education pictures the Canyon Country Discovery Center as a place of learning that will cater to students in the region and to tourists stopping by for a quick visit.
The school, founded in 1984, is used by teachers and youths around the Four Corners, including Durango and Ignacio. Its fundraising capital campaign was set at $11.5 million total, to pay for not only the building but for staffing and programs, said Janet Ross, the school’s executive director.
Workers are in the process of closing in the building, Ross said. They are finishing the roof, and the windows come next. As of late June, construction was 60 percent complete, she said. Construction began last fall, and the hope is to open this fall on the school’s new 48-acre campus.
“Janet has carried that dream along,” said B.J. Boucher of Durango, who is vice president of the Four Corners School’s board of directors. “We’ve talked about it for a long time. ... It’s big. It’s really big.”
Durango is about a two-hour drive from Monticello.
The city of Monticello proposed in 2002 the idea of a hands-on science center, in the hopes of creating educational and employment opportunities. Over the next several years, the idea was developed and expanded by the city’s Economic Development Committee, which partnered with Four Corners School of Outdoor Education.
One study estimated that new visitors will create a $3.6 million economic impact for Monticello and San Juan County.
Although the school is 31 years old, up to this point, it has not had a place where people who just happened to be in the neighborhood could drop in.
“This is a new era for us in terms of inviting the general public into our programs,” Ross said. “The new campus is spurring us forward to create a bunch of new programs. We’re staffing up for that so everybody’s ready when we move into the building in mid-October.”
On its website, Four Corners says its mission is “to create lifelong learning experiences about the Colorado Plateau bioregion for people of all ages and backgrounds through education, service, adventure and conservation programs.”
Currently, the school serves about 6,000 people annually, Ross said. With the new center and programs, the business plan is to serve 35,000 people on site and another 97,000 with outreach programs. The school is currently next to the Monticello Golf Club.
“We have a wee bit of work to do,” Ross agreed. “Indeed, we do.”
For the Canyon Country Discovery Center, there will be five “content” areas, with six learning stations at each area, or a total of 30 stations. Five people will staff the center, and they’ll be able to teach in English, Spanish and Navajo, Ross said. The exhibits, which Ross calls “interactive learning stations,” will be suitable for kids and adults.
Many exhibits are already under construction off-site, she said.
With tourists from around the world constantly driving by in droves, it’s just a matter of getting them to stop.
“All we’ve got to do is get them to pull in,” Ross said. “So we’ve got a great big beautiful sign right out on the highway.”
The programs offered since 1984 will continue. Those include Canyon Country Youth Corps, which does work projects; Bioregional Outdoor Education Project, a training program for kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers; and Southwest Ed-Ventures, which includes outdoor trips such as rafting and hiking.
The programs are designed for the Colorado Plateau, which includes huge swaths of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. For example, Durango and Ignacio educators have undergone training there with other educators from all over the plateau.
“It’s one of the best trainings I’ve ever done for education,” said Scott Shishim, a physical education teacher at Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy, a school for 3-year-olds through sixth-graders in Ignacio.
Shishim said he has incorporated multiple outdoor, place-based learning lessons in his classes since beginning the training last fall.
For instance, in archery classes, they’ll talk about animals you’d see while hunting that are specific to the Colorado Plateau. His class discussed why it’s windier in the spring, and then to demonstrate, they went outside to fly kites.
“It’s something totally different, and it’s learning about the environment at the same time,” he said.
Janet Ross’ parents, Reid and Sari Ross, moved to Durango in 1986. Sari died in March. Reid Ross is on the Four Corners School board of directors.