Toano Middle School breaks ground on outdoor classroom

Staff writer

Even the best students can sometimes struggle with being indoors at school all day, from the first bell to the last. But by this time next year, students at Toano Middle School will be able to enjoy lessons in the school’s new outdoor classroom.

After being delayed a month because of March’s heavy rainfall, school officials broke ground last week on what will eventually be a shared outdoor class space at Toano.

According to Toano Principal Tracey Jones, the plans for the outdoor classroom began last year, growing from an idea to expand upon the school’s existing garden space.

“The idea began over the summer, before the start of the new school year,” Jones said. “We’d had a school garden since April of 2014, but we had a couple of teachers bring up the idea to expand upon that space and develop it into a full outdoor classroom.”

The team behind the idea was PTA member Karen Rath and seventh-grade life science teacher Kathryn Chall, who also heads the school’s Gardening Club. Chall said the idea began when she saw the affect spending time outdoors had on students in the Gardening Club.

“Between being walled in at school and often being surrounded by electronics at home, some of these kids don’t get much time outdoors, and several studies cite that students are more engaged and learning outcomes are improved with time outside,” Chall said. “It seems simple, but fresh air and sunshine do anyone good. I’ve seen the impact it can have on these kids, and we’re all looking forward to being able to teach lessons outdoors in the future.”

Principal Jones said she didn’t need much convincing that the creation of an outdoor classroom, one that every teacher will be able to use, and could be worked into lessons in several subjects, could make a huge impact at Toano.

“When you get to middle school, coming to school and being indoors from the time you get here until the time you leave, it can be hard on the students, and it can impact learning,” Jones said. “We already have some classes that go outside when they can, but this more formal space will allow all of our teachers to get the kids some fresh air and sunshine while they’re in class, and allow for some hands-on learning you can’t always get from a book.”

The initial plan for the outdoor classroom will be a 20-by-30-foot brick patio with bench seating for students, and an outdoor whiteboard/blackboard and podium for teachers. Six raised beds will surround the patio, split equally between use by SHIP (Student Health Initiative Program), and a showcase of plants and vegetation native to the Tidewater region. The space will be wheelchair accessible.

Future plans include a shade structure, new fence, garden shed, weather station and a greenhouse.

Funding for the outdoor classroom has come entirely from donations and grants, including a $2,000 grant from the W-JCC Schools Foundation, which Chall requested.

Material has been donated by Ace Hardware, Tractor Supply Company and several other businesses, including Williams Landscape and Design, whose owner and founder, Aaron Williams, drew up the designs for the classroom. He also donated all of the patio bricks.

Mychael Willon, president of the PTSA, said getting support from the community for the classroom has been a labor of love for nearly everyone involved.

“It’s more than just finding donations and sponsors. The most important thing we’ve done is to find volunteers to help with every step of the project,” Willon said. “We've had some real mavericks working on this project, donating things, or seeing where they can be a part of the process.”

Willon said he is encouraged by what he has seen so far and by expectations for the eventual classroom. Several other W-JCC schools have already built or begun work on outdoor classrooms, including James River Elementary and Stonehouse Elementary.

“A few years back, we helped get the garden put in, and this outdoor classroom is the next step with that project and it's exciting to see that morphing into something even grander,” Willon said.

For Chall, the level of support she’s seen from the community has been one of the most rewarding parts of this project, second perhaps only to the impact the outdoor classroom will have on students.

“This has become a real community effort. We’ve had great support from the school, from parents, from the PTSA and the community, but also from our students,” Chall said. “This is going to do a lot of good for a lot of kids, and I think we’re all proud of that.”

For Toano Middle School students, many of whom have already spent a few afternoons taking care of the outdoor garden, they’re excited to see the project started and perhaps even more excited that, even if they’ll still be at school, they’ll at least be getting some more time outside the classroom next year.

“I’ve been a member of the Garden Club and I’ve enjoyed going out, planting plants, weeding, just getting to go outside and get a little dirty,” seventh-grader Hope Barganier said. “It’s exciting that next year, we may be able to have a few classes outside.”

Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email sean.korsgaard@vagazette.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.

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