A portrait of Kenneth C. Welch is framed above the glass display cases and mounted wildlife specimens in the classroom of the Outdoor Learning Center that bears his name. Although he retired in 1994, Welch still makes an appearance at the annual Outdoor Learning Center Folk Life Festival each spring, dressed in Texas pioneer garb to greet volunteers at the festival’s chuck wagon station.
Founded in 1981, Katy ISD opened the Outdoor Learning Center on 34.5 acres of wooded land about a quarter of a mile west of the Leonard E. Merrell Center and Katy High School. Welch said the land was located in a hundred-year flood plain, so the district was able to purchase the land to develop an outdoor classroom.
“The thought initially was to do something in an outdoor setting where kids who grow up in subdivisions—where they don’t have woods available, they don’t have a lake available—where kids can learn to fish and experience the outdoors. We have a summer recreation program out here. The kids come out for half a day for two weeks and do all types of outdoor activities,” Welch said.
The center has provided hands-on science and history classes for district students since its inception. Elementary and secondary curriculum specialists developed targeted life science and social studies programs, including an annual fourth-grade “Adaptations” field trip where students rotate through stations to learn about Texas wildlife.
A 1.3-acre pond is stocked with fish and KISD first graders arrive each spring by the busload to witness chick hatchings, Welch said.
Welch arrived in Katy in 1961 to become a junior high school coach, and he said he saw early on the need for an outdoor center to serve the growing area. After ten years as a teacher and coach, he served as KISD athletic director for a decade. Welch later served as the assistant principal of Katy Junior High School and was on the initial OLC master-planning committee in 1980.
As the first OLC director, Welch oversaw the initial pond and classroom construction as well as curriculum development.
“We made it available to everyone early on,” Welch said. “The first three or four years we had high school classes from the biology department and the English department, especially from Katy High School, but now it is limited because there are more than 80,000 students and there’s not enough time for everyone.”
The OLC branched out into summer camp programs to enable more students to spend time in the wilderness, Welch said. Summer activities include fishing, archery, canoeing, flying homing pigeons, candle dipping, air rifle skills and safety, dulcimer lessons and outdoor cooking and farm skills.
“It’s good to know kids are involved and trying to learn about things totally out of their experience,” Welch said.
• October 1980
Consultants review the property and meetings are held to discuss the center’s direction.
• June–August 1981
Kenneth D. Welch is announced as first director of the OLC. Trails and walkways are cleared and construction begins on the science classroom.
A committee initially names the OLC after 29-year KISD board of trustees member James E. Williams. A barn, blacksmith shop, barnyard, caretaker’s cottage and history classroom are constructed. Specific curriculum is developed for targeted grade levels.
The annual OLC Folk Life Festival is developed as a result of community meetings to celebrate the Texas Sesquicentennial.
OLC targets second, fourth, seventh and tenth grade levels but soon narrows its focus to second and fourth grades due to district growth.
OLC is renamed for Kenneth D. Welch as a tribute to his efforts to create the center.
Facility improvements include energy-efficient roofing and air conditioning systems inside the classroom and caretaker’s cottage.