Democracy in Action: Denied Mountain Schoolers Make Their Voices Heard


“Dear President,

Please stop the government shutdown by Sunday. I am dying to go to Mountain School and it is being canceled. I am writing to you on the worst day of my life. You are ruining the lives of every single fifth grader in Wade King Elementary and if you care about kids then STOP THE GOVERNMENT SHUT DOWN!!! You can easily settle a budget but this may be the only time I’ll ever go to Mountain School.”

So read the text of a letter sent earlier this week by the fifth grade classrooms at Bellingham’s Wade King Elementary School to our nation’s capitol.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. government shut down because of dysfunction in Congress. Among the many negative impacts of this shutdown has been the closure of our treasured national parks, which has meant blocked access to monuments in Washington DC, cancelled vacations to popular destinations like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, massive loss of income for gateway communities and the suspension of fall educational programs inside the parks.
Many of  North Cascades Institute’s programs, because they occur inside North Cascades National Park, have been cancelled, including Mountain School, our keystone environmental education program for young students.
As The Bellingham Herald reported on Sunday, October 6:

Mountain School is a popular environmental education program offered by North Cascades Institute in cooperation with North Cascades National Park. Students learn about ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains.

Wade King students are set to go the first part of the week, and Columbia students the second part.
If the shutdown drags on into mid-October, students at Northern Heights and Happy Valley elementaries will be unable to attend.

North Cascades Institute also has had to cancel its adult programs at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in the park. It is losing thousands of dollars, representatives said, but the impact on kids who look forward to going to Mountain School but might not be able to do is of concern.

“That’s the one that hurts the most,” Jeff Giesen, associate director for the nonprofit North Cascades Institute, said.

Right now, the decision on whether North Cascades Institute will be allowed to welcome 5th graders to Mountain School—many of whom have been scheduled and preparing for this singular experience for over a year in advance—is based on a day-by-day process.
The trickle-down effect is radiating outward like ripples across the green waters of Diablo Lake. Nate Cornelsen, a fifth grade teacher at Wade King, emailed Chattermarks a list of almost a dozen ways the shutdown has affected his students, classroom and school community, including:

  • Buses were scheduled and had to be cancelled.
  • Approved chaperones took time off work or planned to use vacation time to join us and may not be able to do so again.
  • Hours of teacher prep work to create new learning experiences for students.
  • Connections to the current Inquiry Unit that now cannot be made with Mountain School and will need to be altered.
  • Collaborative teacher prep time for additional activities or field trips to “replace” this experience so students can gain the required knowledge of the “Environments” section of the Inquiry Unit.
  • Building budget dollars used to support teaching and learning now have to be re-purposed for new busing.
  • Many parents are now collaborating to create additional shared experiences outside of the school day for all of the students.
  • Countless communications spent answering questions, keeping families and students informed of changing events, and between staff members about the fluid situation.
  • The challenging home and classroom atmosphere: Trying to console and reassure students that everything will be okay and we “might” be able to participate in a trip they have been counting on for six years!

The teachers are finding ways to turn the disappointment in to a learning experience for the students by having them write down their feelings and opinions in letters to the officials elected to lead. Though probably not nearly as interesting as tromping the trails at Mountain School, the shut down still offered a “teachable moment” for students, who researched the reasons why the government was closing the national parks.
While students downvalley write letters in protest, staff at the Learning Center are writing their own letters, working on improving Mountain School curriculum and trying to re-schedule the impacted schools so that, ultimately, no child is left behind.If you were a national leader, how would you respond to disheartened fifth graders who’ve been looking forward to going to Mountain School for years? Have an opinion? Follow the example of Bellinghamstudents and contact your representatives!

Top photos of Mountain School students by Rick Allen.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is looking forward getting back on the trails with Mountain Schoolers, hopefully sooner than later.


  1. Erin Soper

    A wonderfully written piece! It’s heartbreaking that like so many other programs, Mountain School has fallen victim to the shutdown. As a former Mountain School instructor, I know how powerful this experience is for students and chaperones alike–may students soon be back in the North Cascades National Park making memories while constructing glacial models and peering through microscopes.

  2. Chris Kiser

    Katherine — thank you for highlighting the rippling effects of the government shutdown on the the North Cascades Institute and on the partners, schools and students with whom we work! We had to cancelled two Mtn. School sessions this week, and 154 students were denied the opportunity to explore the North Cascades. Mtn. School is a powerful program for the students we serve, and we have an opportunity here to ensure our voices, and the voices of our students, are heard.

  3. Saul Weisberg

    Great article. Great kids! One of the truths of teaching about the environment, even in places as “protected” as a wonderful and much-loved National Park like North Cascades, is that nothing exists in isolation. Wilderness, National Parks, National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and other public lands are gifts that civilization gives to itself. Sometimes we have to give them over and over… and fight to do it. Thank you Katherine, for sharing this story.

  4. McGinty

    Nice post Renz, well done.

  5. Ken Voorhis

    Thanks for sharing, and thanks for the letters. This is happening across our country, or not happening I should say. Our children need our parks and our parks need our children. Our children have more wisdom than those who are drawing lines in the sand in Washington DC.

  6. derek munson

    Thanks for this great article. I couldn’t help but notice how clearly these 5th graders can express their feelings and frustrations. I honestly believe that if we threw out all of our current congressional leaders, and replaced them with 5th graders like the students here, our country would be better off. These younger people have more compassion, integrity, and clear thinking sincerity than anyone in the house of reps or senate.

  7. Aneka

    Thank you for sharing this Katherine and this further points out how incredible the teachers are at these schools to change this heartbreaking sadness into action. I better get going on writing my own letters to congress, thanks for the inspiration.

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