The skies were shining brightly over the grounds of Sarah Dyer Barnes Elementary School last Tuesday, October 31, as the school community there readied themselves for the afternoon’s official unveiling of the outdoor Schoolyard Habitat which had been rescheduled from a previous, stormier week.
The big event was really two years in the making, according to fifth-grade teacher Jen Morel.
“Two years ago our school entered a contest through the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (REEA) for a dream outdoor classroom. Our school came in second place, so we did not win that contest,” Morel said. “The following year, Cindy Corsair of the US Fish and Wildlife Service contacted us about wanting to make a schoolyard habitat. We received a $3,000 grant through the federal government to create this first phase.”
The first phase includes a classroom space, pollinator garden, picnic tables, a pergola, trail and sitting space.
“We will be using this space for science lessons, for a place to read, a place to have weather tools and to learn about ecosystems,” Morel said. “The Audubon Society of Rhode Island has also been working with us, and Lauren Parmelee is using our science curriculum to develop lessons which we can use in the outdoor classroom.”
She noted that on one recent Saturday, a group of students and families from the school came out to help work on the area to get it ready for its official unveiling.
As the group gathered for the unveiling, Principal Jill Souza took to the podium to welcome the students, faculty and all honored guests.
“Today is a momentous occasion at Sarah Dyer Barnes School,” Souza said. “Today we are celebrating the unveiling of our outdoor classroom and I am very proud of all the hard work and dedication that went into making this day happen.”
She spoke to the students about what the qualities were of leaders and listened to their responses before sharing some of her own ideas.
“A leader is someone who is a positive role model, someone who comes up with a creative idea, or has a vision and makes it a reality. There are leaders everywhere in this audience today. Leaders made this outdoor classroom a reality. I want to thank all of the community leaders who are here with us today,” she said, thanking all of the community leaders in the audience, including Mayor Joseph Polisena, Dr. Bernard DiLullo, school committee members, local businesses and stakeholders for their support. “Most of all I’d like a big thank you to go out to my Outdoor Classroom Planning Committee for being truly inspirational leaders in every way. They are educational, inspirational leaders. I am proud to have all of them on my faculty and staff. Through your amazing leadership skills, your vision for creating this beautiful outdoor space for not only the students of today but the students of tomorrow has now come to life.”
Mayor Polisena spoke to the audience next.
“This is truly a special day for all of you at Barnes, especially for the children who haven’t even started at this school yet,” he said. “This is beautiful. To the staff here, thank you so much for all that you do for our children. This is truly a special day, this is a great classroom. You’re going to learn a lot about nature. Nature is very important. You will learn how things grow, how things get along, and I know you’ve already had some deer visiting here.”
He wished the students and staff luck with the new space and thanked them for including him in the days’ events.
Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo also greeted the group, thankful for the better weather.
“Once again, Barnes Elementary is at the forefront of creating an outdoor space for students to learn. I don’t know if you know this, but Barnes School was one of the first schools to have an outdoor garden many years ago, and I know there are a lot of teachers here who have taken part in that. It’s still in existence,” he said. “The fact that you were able to create an outdoor learning space, this space that you’re developing now that seems that it’s at the beginning stages of what a vision is around a learning classroom, one of the nice things about having a classroom outside is your ability to do science, math, social studies and reading in an natural environment. Rather than learning through books, rather than learning through lectures, rather than learning through videos, you have the opportunity to come out, to smell, touch and feel everything that you’re learning about and that’s a great experience.”
He thanked Souza, the faculty, staff, PTO, Cindy Corsair who is a graduate of Barnes Elementary School herself, and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
Morel approached the podium and thanked all of her committee members and colleagues for their time and dedication to the project. She thanked parent volunteers for their role in the project as well as the families who came out to clean up the space in the spring and fall months in preparation for the unveiling. She also thanked the school administration, and all of the community partners and businesses involved in the creation of the outdoor habitat.
“Our goal is to increase the quality and quantity of experiences that our students have outdoors,” Morel said. She read aloud from the mission statement designed for the Schoolyard Habitat:
“The Sarah Dyer Barnes Schoolyard Habitat is a place that teachers and students will utilize to enhance our curriculum. The restored area will provide habitat for local wildlife, such as birds and butterflies, and serve as an opportunity for exploration and research of native species. Students will actively participate in the inquiry process, allowing for creativity, imagination, and engagement in their learning.”
A group of her fifth-grade students each gave a speech about what they hoped to learn while using the outdoor classroom space.
Cindy Corsair of the US Fish and Wildlife Service congratulated the school on their new outdoor habitat.
“This is a celebration of an amazing project that this team made happen,” she said, thanking all involved for their support in the project. “Today we are celebrating the amazing work of the Barnes Schoolyard Habitat team and your Habitat certification as part of the US Fish and Wildlife Services National Schoolyard Habitat Program. Schoolyard habitats are areas on school grounds that benefit both people and wildlife. They are ecologically sound, integrated into the curriculum and designed to encourage long-term stewardship. They US Fish and Wildlife Service is working across the country to implement these types of projects and here in RI through our partnership with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, we aim to create six Schoolyard Habitat projects by the year 2022. I am proud to say Barnes is the first of the six schools to unveil their project, and you have set a wonderful example for the next five schools to follow.”
She described the space, designed by the team of students, parents and teachers, noting the research of native plants and transformation of the previously underused space into a rich habitat and environment.
Lauren Parmelee of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island said she introduced the mission of the Audubon Society, which is to protect birds, and other wildlife and their habitat through conservation, education and advocacy for the benefit of people and all living things.
“I emphasized our passion for getting kids outside to learn and play. The Barnes School outdoor classroom project is an excellent model of the community working together to improve student learning and healthy living,” said Parmelee. “The wonderful thing about environmental education is that it can be woven through all subject areas, so the outdoor space can be used to inspire reading, writing, art as well as science and math.”
The event wrapped up with a song written by Kaolin Boardman, performed by the kindergarten students before the official ribbon cutting and sign unveiling ceremonies.