For most students and teachers, “back to school” means desks, books and computers. But at one New Jersey school, woods, fields, hills, lakes and streams in the rugged Highlands make up the classroom.

Check out what’s happening at the New Jersey School of Conservation, whose 240-acre campus sits smack in the middle of Stokes State Forest in Sussex County. Founded in 1949 and run by Montclair State University, it’s the oldest and largest college-operated environmental education center in the nation.

Schools throughout New Jersey – and even a few from across the Hudson and Delaware rivers – send their students to learn what only the outdoors can teach: bear and beaver ecology, how to tell the water quality of a stream by examining its tiny creatures, navigating through woods with a compass, how the Native Americans and early colonists lived without today’s modern conveniences, and much more.

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The School of Conservation’s most popular program is a three-day, two-night trip. Some school systems, like Jersey City and Ocean County’s Berkeley Township, have sent kids for more than 40 years.

"When we talk to teachers, they tell us most kids think this is the best thing they’ve done in 12 years of school,” says the school’s director, Dr. Bill Thomas. “My whole instruction to faculty is to make this experience something they can’t get anywhere else.”

Unfortunately, the bearish economy of the past four years has dealt a blow to the New Jersey School of Conservation.

At its peak, the school brought in almost 10,000 students a year, but that number dropped by 40 percent after the financial downturn. As Dr. Thomas notes, districts that are laying off teachers due to budget cuts are hard-pressed to find money for anything beyond instructional necessities – even though this school is a bargain at $130 per student for three days of classes, meals and accommodations.

But parents in some communities have joined together to raise funds to keep their outdoor school trips. School of Conservation officials hope that as the economy improves, more students will return.

When they do, the School of Conservation will be ready. The school has built a large teepee to serve as a classroom for learning about Native American life. A new climbing wall will be a welcome addition to popular activities like archery, fishing, paddling and obstacle courses. Also new is a composting facility to teach kids what happens to their garbage.

With children increasingly disconnected from the outdoors, we all need a reminder that some of the best learning experiences happen outside four walls. Hats off to the New Jersey School of Conservation for its impressive 63-year history of teaching students about nature and ecology!

For more information about the New Jersey School of Conservation, go to the Montclair State University website at

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at