Discover Lee Outdoor Classroom: How it all began
It’s hard to believe just a few short years ago the west side of the Lee School property was a stretch of grass. In the past five years, extraordinary work has been done by our teachers, staff, and parents to transform the half acre property into an outdoor classroom that is now a vibrant part of our students’ everyday learning.
The Discover Lee Outdoor Classroom offers so much flexibility for teachers and students. Some days you will find students journaling with a writing buddy, other days there is an investigation or STEM related activity. It allows for quiet reflection or rambunctious discovery.
Principal Elaine Reusser states “The Discover Lee Outdoor Classroom environment forges critical thinking, engaging subject material, and problem solving skills enabling our Lee students to reach beyond what a textbook can offer.”
Discover Lee includes a Prairie Classroom, a Children’s Forest, and will soon include a Science Education Classroom with a STEM based water feature. It is home to monarch butterflies, toads, a rabbit and several species of birds.
In this article we’ll share with you the history of how Discover Lee came to happen and hope you will feel the pride we do of creating something so unique for our students and teachers.
Imagine an environment that promotes imaginative and challenging opportunities that do not exist within traditional classrooms or playgrounds.
Lee Pre-K teacher Dr. Patty Eaton was inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy of integrating nature with learning. In essence, the outdoor environment becomes a third teacher. Research shows students are better able to absorb and retain math, science, language arts and other skills when they are able to use all of their five senses in an outdoor, flexible learning environment combined with information learned from class and school projects.
In the fall of 2011, Dr. Eaton approached the Lee Foundation to propose her idea for an outdoor classroom. Many parents were motivated by the research and the opportunity to have their children spend more time outdoors. The Lee Foundation agreed to look at the feasibility and hired landscape designer Joe Howell of Howell & VanCuren to develop plans. Mr. Howell had just completed the design for an outdoor classroom at a local private school and is a former Lee parent.
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
The Foundation formed a committee to work with Mr. Howell and to pursue funding for the project. Site dedication and elements of the design were considered very carefully. However, this process was interrupted by good news for the school, yet a setback for the committee; a new cafeteria would be built which would take the space initially planned for the outdoor classroom. The cafeteria was funded through bond money and was a much needed improvement for the school. The committee put the project on pause during the construction process.
By April of 2013, the cafeteria was complete and the committee was ready to resume their efforts. Project Chair Sarah Dougherty sent an email to then principal Cindy Taylor advising the committee was ready to pursue site dedication and finalize the plans. That very day Principal Taylor relayed a donor had come to the school and pledged $25,000 to the project! Mrs. Nieta Pinkerton wanted to honor her late husband and Lee alum James Pinkerton with a significant gift to the school. Mr. Pinkerton had attended Lee School from 1941-1947 and the school remained dear to his heart throughout his life.
Mrs. Pinkerton’s gift confirmed, as Sarah wrote in her reply to Mrs. Taylor, “it is meant to be!” In a subsequent meeting, Mrs. Pinkerton pledged an additional $25,000 in a matching grant opportunity. Mrs. Pinkerton’s gifts and vision for the project gave The Lee Elementary School Foundation credibility to proceed with the capital campaign and the Foundation remains grateful to her.
In June of 2013 Principal Reusser came to Lee School and approved proceeding with the project. Although she “inherited” the project, Mrs. Reusser was determined to help it succeed. The following months were busy with site dedication, developing plans, interviewing construction managers, multiple rounds of cost estimates, seeking project approval from Tulsa Public Schools, announcing the project to Lee parents, and, most importantly, raising the funds for the project. The Lee community came together to make this project happen. It would not have been possible without the generosity of many Lee alumni, parents and neighbors. Donations ranged from $5 to $60,000 from students, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, alumni, foundations, corporations and friends.
A groundbreaking was held in the summer of 2014 and construction commenced on Phase I that fall. During this time, the Foundation was once again the recipient of a major gift of a Lee alum. Mr. George Kravis, on behalf of his family’s foundation, The Raymond and Bessie Kravis Foundation, pledged $60,000 for the completion of Phase 1 of Discover Lee. An enthusiastic supporter of the outdoor classroom, Mr. Kravis has been a frequent visitor to the school and recounts his time as a Lee student with much fondness.
The signature “bookend” donations from Mrs. Pinkerton and Mr. Kravis illustrate the impact alums and private donations can have for public education.
In May 2015, a Grand Opening ceremony was held and every student in Lee School had the opportunity to run through and enjoy the new space! It was a day that will be remembered fondly by all who attended.
Over the summer of 2015, a team of Lee teachers, representing all grade levels, worked to develop curriculum to incorporate current Oklahoma standards, existing outdoor classroom materials, and collaborations with local environmental resources. The curriculum is designed to incorporate STEM/STEAM opportunities in all disciplines.
Our curriculum team was selected to present “A School’s Journey Back to Nature” at the Southern Early Childhood Association (“SECA”) national conference this year. We are so proud to see our work being recognized at such an early stage. Lee was also recently selected to be a member of “Oklahoma Green Schools.”
We are now in our final capital campaign to complete Discover Lee with a science education space, which will include a STEM based water feature. The water element will bring us full circle on providing a comprehensive ecological system for the students. All donations received are eligible for a match of up to $50,000 from The Raymond and Bessie Kravis Foundation.
Discover Lee is the only project of its kind in Tulsa Public Schools. The Lee Foundation is proud of our efforts and we look forward to completing Phase II and watching our results impact the lives of Lee students for many years to come. As Margaret Mead said “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”