Helping hands: Volunteers restore ‘outdoor classroom’

DOVER — The name “outdoor classroom” at Central Middle School had been about 50 percent right.

Sure, it was located outdoors, but its’ deteriorated conditions made it far from being a usable classroom.

However, volunteers from both the Dover Police Department’s Police Athletic League (PAL) and the Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Camden braved hot and steamy conditions on Monday and Tuesday to make Central Middle’s outdoor classroom a valuable place of learning again.

The 30 or so dedicated volunteers will continue their work today before unveiling their finished product on Thursday.

“I ended up speaking with (Central Middle) Principal Shan Green, who said that there’s a need for the outdoor classroom to be restored,” said Patrolman First Class Anthony Smith, coordinator of Dover’s PAL. “When we came out here it was all overgrown vegetation, a lot of bugs, snakes and different things like that, to where the kids couldn’t even access or utilize the classroom.

“What we’re doing right now is we’ve completely expanded the classroom, there’s going to be a work table in here where they can do their experiments and things like that and there’s also all of the benches, the chairs, everything is going to be brand new because we completely ripped out everything in that aspect.”

He added, “It’s going to be a comfortable environment for the kids to actually be in when we’re finished.”
Patrolman Smith estimated that the outdoor classroom project will cost around $15,000 when it’s completed but added the inclusion that it will provide for all students will make it a worthy investment.

He said the entire outdoor classroom area is being expanded, the volunteers are installing new benches, posts and solar lights, as well as a new pathway that will make the outdoor classroom accessible to children in wheelchairs. They are even building a mini dock that will overlook the beginning source of the St. Jones River.

“Since the outdoor classroom is directly right next to Silver Lake Park and Silver Lake, there was no way to actually see the lake,” said Patrolman Smith. “So, what we did was actually open up the overgrown weeds and all the vegetation so now all the kids can come do water samples, can come see the fish, the turtles and the wildlife.”

“All the kids” was what’s most important to Ms. Green.
“Ultimately, the outdoor classroom is a good opportunity for kids in every single curriculum area we have,” the principal said. “Obviously, the connection to science and ag science is obvious, but we have kids who will come out here when they’re reading a novel just to get outside.

“We have students who, in (the Capital School) District, we focus a lot on social-emotional work, so students who just need to be outside of the building and connect with some peaceful spot and learn self-calming techniques, things like that, it’s going to be wonderful.”
For this week, it’s about putting the work gloves on and raking out weeds, replacing rotting benches and installing a safer, rubberized foundation.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Frankie Vann, a manager at the Camden Lowe’s. “It’s always good to be able to help out a community, especially a school, and it’s good to be able to get involved with the kids because they’re super-important to our future, so anything we can do to help, I love it.

“Sitting in the classroom for eight hours a day is tough, so any way you can get out of the classroom and get some fresh air and get involved with nature and see what’s going on out here is a good thing.”
So, volunteers with the Police Athletic League and the Lowe’s of Camden wasted no time getting to work — even in the sweltering 90-degree weather conditions.

Natalie Way, a 21st Century Site Coordinator for Central Middle and the Capital School District, was also excited about the pathway that was being built to the outdoor classroom from the southeast side of Central Middle behind the faculty’s parking lot.

“We have children who use wheelchairs to get around and with this new trail that we’re building they’ll be able to access the outdoor classroom as well,” she said, “so it’s an inclusive environment for all of our student population.

“Students will be able to come out here and sit down, they can do their artwork, they can do science experiments out here, and it’s going to be really nice and I’m excited.”

Todd Hammond, a manager at the Camden Lowe’s, was proud that 20 employees from his store signed up to participate.

Last summer, the Dover PAL and Camden Lowe’s got together with other organizations and renovated and beautified the recreational facilities behind the Elizabeth W. Murphey School, which is located right next door to Central Middle.

“We really just want to contribute to the community, so we team up every year with ‘Lowe’s Heroes,’ and make sure we get together with a local organization like the Dover Police Department,” Mr. Hammond said. “We really just want to help the community out.

“It’s just nice being a part of the community and making sure we contribute and give back.”

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