Discover Outdoor Classroom: How it all began and where we are 10 years later.
It’s hard to believe the west side of the Council Oak School property was a stretch of grass. In the past decade, 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 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.
Past Principal Elaine Reusser stated “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.”
The Discover Outdoor classroom includes a Prairie Classroom, a Children’s Forest, and 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 the Discover classroom 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.
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 (now COE 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 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 Foundation credibility to proceed with the capital campaign and the Foundation remains grateful to her.
In June of 2013 Principal Reusser came to 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 parents, and, most importantly, raising the funds for the project. The 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 the Discover classroom. 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 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. The school was also selected to be a member of “Oklahoma Green Schools.”
We have since completed another capital campaign to complete the Discover classroom with a science education space, which includes a STEM based water feature. The water element has brought us full circle on providing a comprehensive ecological system for the students.
The Next Decade
Through the pandemic, during the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 school years, the Foundation continued to fundraise and maintain the school grounds through unique outdoor and socially distant ways.
In the Spring of 2021 Principal Aubrey Flowers approached the Foundation with an ambitious proposal. Could the investments made in the outdoor classroom over the last decade be put to their full potential? Could the Foundation commit to fund a teacher for outdoor classroom year round starting in the 2021/2022 school year? After thoughtful consideration, the Foundation funded the first year with intent and purpose to provide permanent recurring financial support for the specials curriculum! The commitment to permanent recurring teacher funding and learning supplies, continued maintenance of the grounds, and new investments in outdoor classroom infrastructure are our priorities as we enter this new chapter for the outdoor classroom!
And who might you ask is the teacher taking on this new adventure in teaching? Our own Dr. Patty Eaton, who inspired this concept a decade ago. We couldn't be more honored to be a part of this ongoing project and to support the children of Council Oak for many more decades to come.
The Discover classroom is the only project of its kind in Tulsa Public Schools. The Foundation is proud of our efforts and we look forward to watching our results impact the lives of the 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.”