Amid pandemic, Atlanta elementary school builds outdoor learning lab

Brendon Briggs, who works in talent acquisition for Cox Enterprises, drops off an insect house he built for use in an outdoor learning lab at Harper-Archer Elementary School in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

When the pandemic forced school buildings to close in March it also halted a plan to transform a big space behind Harper-Archer Elementary School into an outdoor learning lab.

Now, work is underway to create a fresh-air classroom with a garden and pavilion — just as some students are slated to return to the Atlanta school later this month.

School staffers said the chance for hands-on, socially distanced learning comes at a good time for teachers and students, who have spent months in online classes.

“The better the experience for the kids, the more they are going to remember and just really take in," said second-grade teacher Stephanie Voss. "That’s what I’m excited about as a teacher, just being able to create those new experiences for them.”

ExploreAJC special report: Harper-Archer Elementary

An Atlanta Public Schools’ reopening plan calls for some special education students and students in prekindergarten through fifth grade to resume in-person classes Oct. 26, pending COVID-19 case numbers. At Harper-Archer, about 200 of the school’s 650 students are expected to return if the district moves forward with the reopening plan, with the rest choosing to remain virtual.

Those who return will get to experience a new way of learning science, technology, engineering and math through outdoor exploration.

The national nonprofit Out Teach expects to wrap up construction of a $120,000 outdoor learning lab in the coming weeks. The organization builds outdoor classrooms and trains teachers to use the spaces.

Dione Simon Taylor, principal of Harper-Archer Elementary School in Atlanta, left, is interviewed by Katrina Reed, school partnerships manager with Out Teach, on Oct. 13, 2020, for a Facebook Live post during an event where volunteers dropped off projects they built for an outdoor learning lab at the school. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The Harper-Archer project is one of a half-dozen large outdoor labs created by Out Teach in metro Atlanta in the last three years. Harper-Archer opened in August of 2019 after APS merged two academically troubled elementary schools. Many students are low-income, and Principal Dione Simon Taylor has tried to create opportunities that they might not otherwise have.

“They’ll have a chance to plant things and see things grow,” Taylor said. “That’s going to help to enhance the instructional part.”

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Harper-Archer Elementary School principal Dione Simon Taylor has been tasked with improving academics at Harper-Archer Elementary School.

The new lab’s primary funder is Cox Enterprises, the parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Volunteers from Cox Enterprises were originally scheduled to gather in the spring to help build the lab, but the pandemic delayed the work.

About 30 volunteers made pieces at their homes, said Jennifer Bronner, senior manager of corporate social responsibility at Cox Enterprises. On Tuesday, they dropped off bird feeders, a bench, an insect hotel, an abacus, decorative signs, a box to hold books and other elements to enhance the lab.

The outdoor space will feature a pavilion with seating for a full class, an earth science station and a performance stage. Students will learn about the life cycle of plants by studying a vegetable garden. Weather instruments, such as a rain gauge, will connect what they learn in science books to what’s happening right outside the school.

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The emphasis is more on students exploring than teachers talking, said Jarri Goodman, an instructional coach for Out Teach who is training Harper-Archer teachers to use the space.

Out Teach has seen interest in outdoor classrooms surge amid the pandemic. Research has shown safety benefits to being outside instead of inside, where the virus is more likely to spread.

Outdoor learning also offers big academic, social and emotional benefits, said Suzannah Koilpillai, the organization’s senior director of partnerships.

“There’s so much creativity, collaboration and exploration that happens outdoors,” she said. “It’s so exciting for us that the timing has lined up … as it’s going to be so critical to address these different needs for kids as they return.”

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