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South Park Middle School Outdoor Classroom to Serve Double Duty

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Howard Anderson said his smelly, sometimes boisterous lesson plans don’t do anything for his popularity in the teachers lounge at South Park Middle School.

“We’re dissecting fish and the room stinks or we’re making bottle rockets,” the fifth-grade science teacher said last week as he and a small crew of laborers worked to assemble the wooden structure for an outdoor classroom that he hopes will double as a memorial garden..

Mr. Anderson said he began mulling the concept in May 2009, three months after his friend and fellow science teacher, Marilyn Walsh, died from pancreatic cancer. He said he wanted to honor Mrs. Walsh by creating a lasting memorial combining two of her favorite things: teaching and tiger lilies.

His vision turned into a pet project after he helped secure a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s and a contribution from Consol Energy to fund the facility, which will be located behind the middle school.

But Mr. Anderson said that while he was thankful for the funding, a few thousand dollars doesn’t go far when it comes to building a 20-by-20-foot structure with an asphalt floor and gabled roof.

In fact, he said the project may have faltered without Stephen Bornyas, owner-operator of Bornyas Residential Construction of Boston, who offered to complete the structure for what Mr. Anderson said was a significantly reduced rate.

Mr. Anderson said he reached out to Mr. Bornyas after Internet research led him to a story about the company building a similar outdoor classroom at Elizabeth Forward School District.

Mr. Bornya said he expected the project to take two days for his crew to complete. Gabe Gehenio of Gabriels Excavation also worked at a reduced rate to help.

Once the structure is finished, phase two — installation of a garden hugging the perimeter of the outdoor classroom — will begin.

Mr. Anderson said that he hopes the outdoor classroom will help other teachers add flexibility to their lesson plans and that the space will be used for instruction, as well as a quiet place for members of the community to eat lunch or quietly reflect.

But he was clear: The outdoor classroom is an evolving science project in its own right.

“I don’t want it to end,” he said. “I want it to get bigger and better and improve every year.”

And he said anytime his dedication wavered, he thought of what Mrs. Walsh would have done.

“She inspired me because she came to school sick and she came tired,” Mr. Anderson said, adding that even when the teacher was in the hospital she called to see how her students had fared on their standardized tests.

Mr. Anderson said the memory of Mrs. Walsh has also inspired him to create a horticultural club at the middle school, which will help interested youngsters learn more about the art of cultivating flowers while also ensuring the garden is maintained.

He added that he will be looking for funding to add an alternative energy source. Mr. Anderson said one day he would like to incorporate solar panels or a wind turbine, which would complement both the facility itself, as well as its capacity for educational enrichment.

But until then, he said he looks forward to fall, when he’ll be able to test drive the new classroom.

Anything that smells pretty awful or that concentrates on fire tends to work better outdoors, anyway, Mr. Anderson said.

Middle school principal Kevin Monaghan lauded the project and Mr. Anderson for his creativity at a time when students standardized test scores are often the focus.

“It makes lessons more relative to the students,” Mr. Monaghan said. “Something like this makes all the difference.”

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