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Wingate Elementary's outdoor classroom build sprouts a sense of community

Think of a classroom with a fresh twist – no walls, just the great outdoors. Imagine students swapping their desks for benches and lessons under the open sky. That's the plan at Wingate Elementary, where the school teamed up with Out Teach and Blue Cross NC to turn an unused space behind the building into an exciting outdoor lab and their courtyard into a peaceful haven. It's not just about a change of scenery; it's about engaging in lessons surrounded by nature's wonders, proving that education isn't limited to four walls.

"We are an AgTech School, so it makes sense for us to have a usable, adaptable outdoor environment that enhances academics for all of our students," said Principal Maxie Johnson. "We also want to create zen moments for emotional support so students and teachers can have time to close their eyes, relax and breathe."

The design for the spaces was a collaborative effort among students and teachers. The school hosted a Dine and Design lunch where they shared their ideas and held a student art competition. 

"We asked our students to draw what their ideal outdoor classroom would look like. We picked the top three and then chose a winner. We integrated many of their ideas into the design and are exploring ways to display the artwork," said Johnson.

On Nov. 15, it transitioned from concept to realization. Community members, Forest Hills high school students and Blue Cross NC employees joined Out Teach staff to roll up their sleeves for an action-packed day at the school. Before starting, they enjoyed coffee, snacks and a pep talk from Edna Chirico, Out Teach's director of government affairs, Principal Johnson, literacy teacher Randy Rutledge and three fifth graders. 

Fifth grader Kelly Faldana expressed her gratitude towards all the volunteers. Although she will only use the space this year, she looks forward to other students enjoying it for years to come. Kelly loves learning about ecosystems like the rainforest and animals. She is excited to experience how the spaces will enhance what she's learned and introduce her to new topics.

"Figuring out how to use the outdoors for literacy has been a challenge with great rewards," said Rutledge. "There is a lot of integration and collaboration that can happen between subjects. We are teaching poetry outdoors, focusing on nature observation and descriptive writing. The goal for this year is to complete an outdoor reading project in the new space." 

Teams were set up and ready to go by 9:30 a.m. The tasks covered a range of activities. Some volunteers focused on building raised flower and vegetable beds. Other people constructed and decorated birdhouses. As the volunteers upcycled sheds and assembled animal habitats, the area echoed with the sounds of different tools. Simultaneously, a little library took shape to provide a quiet literary retreat amidst the greenery.

A group of Forest Hills High School students who are members of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) club were among the volunteers. According to senior John Baker, he joined to showcase the importance of agriculture to the younger generation. Meanwhile, senior and FFA Vice President Haylee Trull aimed to leave a lasting impact.

"It's good for the students using these spaces to know that high schoolers helped build it for them. It shows them we want them to learn more about agriculture. It also shows that there are people behind them and supporting them," said Trull. "I'd like them to see that FFA is also about leadership and meeting new people." 

Volunteering was also Wingate University students and staff and Wingate Methodist Church members. Some volunteers from Blue Cross NC were local to the area, while others, like Gabriel Staub, drove about two hours. 

"Every school should have outdoor learning spaces if they have an opportunity to do it. If we had something like this when I was a kid, it would've been great," said Staub.

Out Teach staff were also on hand to help. The school's partnership with them began about three years ago with training select teachers of all subjects to plan outdoor lessons. Those teachers can now effectively train their colleagues to do the same. Allie Grayeeal, the director of professional learning at Out Teach, was instrumental in this training.

"I started with the UCPS partnership in 2019 as an instructional coach at Union and Western Union. We work one-on-one with the participants to provide on-the-job-embedded coaching throughout the school year that aligns with state standards and school goals," said Grayeeal. "We follow up by observing the teachers, providing feedback and planning time."

Grayeeal pointed out that learning does not occur in silos, and the same is true in the real world. She explained that when we think about what goes on in outdoor classrooms, our minds naturally go to math and science. Grayeeal provided examples of how narrative writing complements outdoor learning, enabling students to share unique experiences. Engaging in lessons like watering flower beds or discussing planting methods facilitates procedural writing alongside science.

"If you think back to your elementary days, most of us would say that what we remember the most were the field trip experiences. Out Teach seeks to create that field trip experience every day," said Chirco. "You can only take a few field trips a year. By investing in an outdoor learning lab, teachers can create those experiences and help students retain more information."

Blue Cross NC not only provided volunteers; they also donated funds to the project. 

"At Blue Cross North Carolina, we place tremendous value in how education is a critical driver of health. We think education and academic achievement connect strongly to economic opportunity. We believe in the power of our partnership with Out Teach and the tools it gives to faculty. It's a great way to be a neighbor and partner in the community," said David Shaw, the senior program manager for community engagement. "We are most proud of the sweat equity we contributed through our employees being out here."

The day progressed steadily until 3 p.m. and ended with a celebratory ribbon cutting.