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Florida PSRPs convert outdoor space to reading classroom

Thanks to the initiative of classified school employees, reading achievement is going through the roof at a struggling elementary school in Florida.

Oh, wait. There is no roof because the Support Personnel Association of Lee County, an AFT affiliate representing all non-instructional staff in the county, created an outdoor classroom nestled near the school. (See the before and after photos below.)

Outdoor Reading Classroom Before

The opportunity came last fall, after the state required Franklin Park Elementary, a high-poverty school in Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, to add an hour of reading time every day. Enthusiastic staff and their union, working with a dedicated principal, decided to turn a barren courtyard into "a place to plant and nourish seeds of knowledge," says local president Jamie Michael. "Many students who struggle inside will blossom outdoors."

PSRP leaders identified a side yard in late fall, began clearing the area and sought out local business partners who donated the landscape design, a truckload of mulch, planters and park benches. Union support helped pay for the remaining materials, including plants and irrigation hoses.

Excitement grew with each visit. PSRPs would work before and between shifts to install the classroom. It was fun for students to see their bus driver digging holes for plants and their custodian hauling mulch, Michael says. By the end of the second phase this spring, in which they planted gardens and added learning features to the landscape, the school's employees had begun sharing ideas for beautifying the rest of the school grounds.

Outdoor Reading Classroom After

Aside from the extra reading time, the plantings already have contributed sensory learning experiences, including texture, smells and shapes, for the younger students and an introduction to hydroponic agriculture for the older kids.

This spring, the school got word that students have shown 20 percent growth in their reading scores for the year.

The value of outdoor education has been demonstrated at AFT members' schools throughout the country, particularly in California. But wild play can take place anywhere. Outdoor learning pioneer David Sobel, who teaches at Antioch University in New Hampshire, describes in vivid detail how much children can learn through a walk in the woods.

Proving the point, AFT members Christa Myers and Mary Draves spearheaded the creation of an outdoor education center in Berea, Ohio, using public parklands near their school. The project has grown over the course of a decade to include four outdoor classrooms, a walking trail with learning stations, a footbridge for wheelchair access, bird-feeding areas and a native prairie.

The AFT website has more information on AFT green initiatives. [Annette Licitra/Support Personnel Association of Lee County photos]

May 31, 2013