Low clouds, icy rain and a mound of shovels and pick axes greeted Tahoma High School students at Taylor Mountain Forest near Hobart. With a steady hand...

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Low clouds, icy rain and a mound of shovels and pick axes greeted Tahoma High School students at Taylor Mountain Forest near Hobart.

With a steady hand — and surprising grace — sophomore Ashley Dyche swung a pick ax, hitting the earth and causing an explosion of bark, rocks and mud. Dyche and classmates formed a line along a portion of newly cleared forest. Colorful flags marked the dirt where they were building a trail for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

On a day when most physical-education classes would be locked in the confines of a gymnasium, 80 Tahoma High sophomores are outfitted in hiking gear and rubber boots, ready to embrace the elements.

It makes sense for the Tahoma School District, which covers some rural parts of Southeast King County, to take advantage of its natural surroundings, health-and-fitness teacher Tracy Krause said.

Krause is one of a growing number of educators who have ditched traditional physical-education curricula, which emphasize team sports, in favor of a new brand of exercise that targets life skills.

Private courses that specialize in teaching outdoor skills have combined education and rugged recreation for years. Now some public schools are following the lead of these programs by offering classes that target the long-term health and wellness of students.

Dyche says she was surprised when she learned she could earn half of her physical-education credits for graduation through Tahoma High’s Outdoor Academy, a 4-year-old program that combines language arts, science, health and fitness.

“Other classes are told to write descriptive essays about nature,” Dyche said. “We get to experience the outdoors.”

“This is very hands-on community service,” said Tina Miller, volunteer coordinator with King County. “It’s about building social responsibility. Hopefully, this will give students more respect for these trails.”

More than gym class

Tahoma High’s outdoor program started in 2004 when Krause teamed up with language-arts teacher Jamie Vollrath and chemistry teacher Mike Hanson to create a curriculum that would take advantage of Maple Valley’s abundant natural resources. The result: the Outdoor Academy, a yearlong course that combines writing, scientific inquiry and physical education.

This year’s class has 84 students, but the list of those who want in is long; more than 100 were turned away this year. Students for the program are chosen at random by a computer.

Three teachers — one for science, one for language arts and one for physical fitness — teach students in the same classroom for several hours a day. The result is an interdisciplinary experience that allows students to connect subjects.

During a fall unit on fly-fishing, students read “A River Runs Through It” and learned about river ecology and aquatic invertebrates. But student Kyle Miller says the best part of the unit was the fly-fishing trip students took in November.

Tahoma High isn’t the first school to trade pickle ball for trail building, but it is at the forefront of a growing trend, said Pam Tollefsen, coordinator of school-health programs for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In the late 1990s, the statewide model for physical education was updated to embrace “lifetime physical activities,” Tollefsen said. The goal of the state mandate: Give students health and exercise lessons that apply to life outside of school.

“What are these young people going to be engaging in when they are adults?” Tollefsen said. “Are they going to watch competitive sports on TV? Or, are they going to get out there and ride a bike or go fly-fishing?”

The answer to that question, Tollefsen said, is changing because of programs like Tahoma High’s.

Paying for program

The benefits of teaching students practical recreational activities — such as hiking, climbing or fishing — are huge, Tollefsen said, but cost can be prohibitive for urban districts far from the wild outdoors or poor districts that lack money to pay for programs.

Tahoma High has received several grants to help pay for the Outdoor Academy.

Throughout Maple Valley, district officials say, there is strong support for new outdoor physical-education classes.

The district has no plans to expand the high-school program, district spokesman Kevin Patterson said.

At Taylor Mountain, students did a lot of work in a few hours. They built a large segment of a two-mile trail. Two smaller groups installed logs to help with erosion, and others planted native trees and shrubs in a newly completed parking lot.

After all that work and a 15-minute bus ride, they arrived back at school before the final bell.

Building a trail from scratch was tough, but having a whole class working together made it easier.

“I like being outdoors, being with my friends,” Dyche said. “It makes me work because I probably would never do this on my own.”

Karen Johnson: 253-234-8605 or karenjohnson@seattletimes.com