JAMES CITY— For 13 years an outdoor classroom in the woods behind James River Elementary School has sat dormant, surrounded by trees knocked down in 2003 by Hurricane Isabel and only accessible by bushwhacking through an overgrown path.
But over the summer a cadre of parents, teachers and volunteers have cleared brush, laid mulch and built benches so children can learn about photosynthesis surrounded by trees, or study the life cycle of a butterfly while sitting in a butterfly garden.
On Thursday, a team of volunteers from Home Depot installed benches while teachers spread mulch along the path. The goal is for the classrooms to be ready for use the first week in October.
Ashley Lee, a third-grade teacher at James River, said teachers are excited about the classroom's potential.
"I had always heard of the outdoor classroom, but no one was ever using it because it was so over grown," Lee said. "So many of our kids, especially my children, are more kinesthetic as well as visual learners. What better way to teach children than through the outdoors?"
Lee was one of several teachers from the school helping spread mulch along the trail to the cluster of benches. Rising fifth-grader Olivia Rabinowitz worked alongside her teachers, pushing a cart of mulch and helping build the trail she and her classmates would be using in a few months.
The finished product will be two classrooms – the first will be just inside the treeline behind the school. Benches set in a small clearing will provide space for one class. The second classroom, located farther back in the woods where the original classroom stood, will have enough benches for two classes to sit and a teacher table.
Lee said teachers will be able to use the outdoor setting for a variety of lessons.
"It's obvious we can use the classroom for science (because) you can have all the life cycles and plant cycles, but you can also tie it in with math. You can measure area and perimeter of benches, measure how many feet it is from here to school," Lee said.
"On top of that, reading is my passion," she said. "How many times would you have wanted to in school, take your book box, go outside and spend your reading time out here reading, conferencing with kids, doing your writing journals."
The school's Parent Teacher Association decided to restore the classroom in May. Transforming the wreckage from Isabel into a safe, accessible and useful learning space has required collaboration between volunteers, church groups and local businesses.
Tiki Tree and Landscape cleared the fallen trees for half price, and Five Brothers Lawn Care sprayed the path for weeds for free.
The PTA applied for and received a $2,600 grant from the Home Depot Foundation, which paid for the materials needed to build the benches. A team of volunteers from the Williamsburg Home Depot brought the post-hole digger and the materials on Thursday and installed the benches.
"Once we had (the trees) cleared we had no funds left to move forward," said PTA Vice President Julie Cullifer. "That is why Home Depot is huge for us. The grant is making it so this fall our kids will be able to use it."
Larry Morgan, one of the Home Depot volunteers, said the store tries to top 200 hours of community service each year.
James City County donated several truckloads of mulch to build the path, and Waters Edge Church sent about 20 volunteers to help spread the mulch, Cullifer said.
The group hopes to hold the ribbon-cutting ceremony in early October. Lee said the outdoor classrooms will be especially helpful to children at James River, which has the highest number of elementary-aged students on free- and reduced-price lunch in Williamsburg-James City County.
"These kids, a lot of times they don't get to come out and walk a trail and look at trees," Lee said. "We are trying to make sure all the kids have an equal playing field, and this is just one way we can boost teaching to all sorts of different learners."
McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.