Sometimes, you have a good idea and then implementing that idea becomes a necessity. That is how outdoor classrooms have evolved for Harrisonburg City Public Schools.
Creating outdoor learning spaces has been on the division and School Board’s radar for some time. Look at the plans for the second high school to see that thinking. Although put on hold because of the pandemic, the second high school design incorporates a number of outdoor learning spaces, and was designed well before COVID-19 turned teaching and everything else upside down.
But now that the world is turned upside down, proceeding quickly with the outdoor learning spaces, which keep students safer than an indoor space, is becoming even more important.
Superintendent Michael Richards said he hopes to have temporary spaces in place at each of the schools by the time the weather turns nice enough to use them, which could be as early as March.
“We are going to be the division that teaches outdoors,” Richards said.
Currently, Bluestone Elementary School and Smithland Elementary School have outdoor learning spaces. And principals at each of the other schools are taking a look at their campuses and will submit plans for how they will incorporate tents, amphitheaters, trails, picnic benches and more.
There are some challenges that will need to be tackled in the creation of these spaces, both temporary and permanent, said Craig Mackail, chief operating officer for HCPS.
Equity is one of the big ones right now: making sure every student, regardless of ability, has equal access to the outdoor spaces.
“For instance, students in wheelchairs, they need to have access too,” Mackail said.
When permanent structures are put up in the coming year, making sure they have electricity and Wi-Fi will be a challenge. But in comparison to other capital projects, the outdoor spaces will be fairly cost effective and will be added to the capital improvement plan for the coming year, pending School Board approval.
Mark Miller walked around Keister Elementary School, where he is principal, on Tuesday and talked about the 15 acres the school sits on and the possibilities for temporary and future spaces.
In front of the school is a hill that leads down onto a level, grassy area. One idea is to put a structure or two on the flat area and building amphitheater seating on the hill, where teachers already bring kids for lessons.
Keister already has some nature trails, with a few clearings where picnic tables could be added. There is also a garden that James Madison University students help maintain. Miller also said the garden would be a good spot for picnic benches.
But the big idea for a permanent structure is being proposed for the flat area near the track, which is often used by members of the community.
“Anything that could connect to the track,” Richards said, adding that schools ultimately belong to the community and projects like this help to enhance the community.
School Board member Obie Hill met with employees of Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation this week to discuss the outdoor classroom spaces and ways that the school division and parks and rec could work together.
“They are in agreement about working with us on future plans,” Hill said. “They are looking forward to working with us.”