Ryan Merkle Named KCSOS’s Teacher of the Year Honoree

Thursday May 9, 2024

Every year, the Kern County Superintendent of Schools’ Alternative Education Program honors one of its own as KCSOS’s Teacher of the Year. The 2024 honoree, Ryan Merkle, has shown how to engage students and instill a life-long love of outdoor learning for all enrolled at Camp Owen. This year alone, he has raised more than $40,000 to help students access invaluable outdoor programs at Camp Owen.

Merkle was recognized alongside 58 other Kern County Teachers of the Year nominees during the Education Champions awards dinner held on May 7.

Many know him as a colleague, friend, and teacher. But he is more than that. Merkle is a mentor, white water rafting instructor, gardener, fisherman, hiker, adrenaline junkie, and now, KCSOS Teacher of the Year.

Kern County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mendiburu poses for a photo with Ryan Merkle during the Education Champions dinner.

Merkle takes students on an adventure.

Merkle started teaching for KCSOS in 2018 at Redwood High School within the Kern Crossroads Facility, a local juvenile detention facility focusing on rehabilitating males ages 14 – 18. Despite not having much teaching experience when he joined the staff, Merkle used his own life experiences as a former drug addict and inmate to help students see the value of rehabilitation. These connections helped Merkle forge deeper connections with students to guide them on a better path.

With his love of the outdoors always at the top of his mind, Merkle requested to work at Erwin Owen High School, also known as Camp Owen. Camp Owen is a forestry camp for youth aged 14 to 18 in Kernville, California. It opened in 1938 as a rehabilitative center for youth offenders to learn discipline, a strong work ethic, and individual responsibility. In 2019, Merkle officially joined Camp Owen as a special education teacher to ensure students’ individualized education plans (IEP) were implemented.

According to Alternative Education Co-Director Molly Mier, Merkle is known for expanding these lessons with field trips that help integrate outdoor education. He has also been leading Camp Owen’s garden program, which teaches students how to grow food and then harvest it in their culinary programs. 

Students take a break from gardening.

Mr. Merkle arrives almost two hours early daily to work with students in the camp garden. He also leads and takes students with probation on educational field trips centered around hiking through places like the Trail of 100 Giants, Dome Rock, the Fresno Zoo, and even San Simeon State Beach. Some of these students haven’t been outside of their neighborhoods. It’s incredible to see.

Amanda Thomas
Principal of Erwin Owen High School

Camp Outdoor Education Project

The field trips and extracurriculars that Merkle engages students with are all part of the Camp Outdoor Education Project (COEP), an incentive program for Camp Owen youth that encourages good behavior and hard work. If students receive recognition for their hard work, they become eligible for off-site community service projects and adventure-related activities supported by lesson plans that correlate with outdoor education. The COEP program is run by Probation Auxiliary County of Kern (PACK), a non-profit organization associated with the Kern County Probation Department that develops incentive-based programs for detained youth in Kern County. The $40,000 that Merkle raised earlier this year will go entirely to PACK and the COEP program.

Merkle on a hike with students.

Merkle believes the program provides the incentives needed to help youth learn how to set short-term goals and reap rewards. It also teaches students that when they make a poor choice and become ineligible for a trip, there is always an opportunity right around the corner to make up for it and go on the next trip. This ‘second chance’ learning opportunity is something that Merkle communicates heavily to his students because he, too, got a second chance in his life.

“It’s important for my students to know that I went down a similar road as they did,” said Merkle. “I was a meth addict for many years and was able to turn my life around once I committed to change. I had been on probation for six years of my adult life and was incarcerated for four months at Lerdo when I hit rock bottom. Our society is about second chances and not letting your past mistakes define who you are and who you can become.”

Looking toward the future, Merkle hopes to continue sharing his sense of adventure with the youth at Camp Owen. He often jokes that people should drive fast and take chances because that’s how he likes to live his life.

“I do not ever want to look back on my life with regret that I did not do or try something,” he said.

By Jennifer Bryan

By Jennifer Bryan

Jennifer Bryan joined Kern County Superintendent of Schools in 2021 as a Communications Specialist. As a creative and motivated marketing communications specialist, she has a special knack for storytelling and content creation. Born and raised in Kern County, Jennifer has worked in major industries within the region such as agriculture and oil and gas before she made the transition to education.