Centreville It took the combined actions of many people to bring Lees Corner Elementary’s outdoor classroom to fruition. But it began with the vision of third-grade teacher Tina Pivarnik.
“I started here as the primary, lead science teacher, and I thought we could do more than plant a tree or recycle paper,” she said. “And I wanted our kids back outside again.”
Once just grass, the site behind the school now contains 15 raised, garden beds around a wooden pergola with latticework sides, plus a cement patio with benches that flip back to become tables.
Created before school began in September, it’s now a learning environment where all ages may do particular reading, math and art projects outside. The garden beds are tied to each grade level’s curriculum, and the pergola can be used for events and guest speakers.
“We also plan an outdoor whiteboard for teachers on the brick wall at the back of the patio,” said Pivarnik. “And our special-needs and autistic kids will have a safe-play area with a touch wall off to one side of the patio, so it’ll be a five-senses garden with wheelchair-accessible planter beds.”
To kick off the funding for it, last February, the school received a $2,000 grant from the Whole Foods’s Healthy Kids Foundation. It also won a sweepstakes sponsored by WTOP radio and Zippy Shell Moving & Storage.
“We wrote a proposal telling what we’d use the money for, and we were up against high schools,” said Pivarnik. “The school with the most votes won — and you had to be 13 or older to vote — so we were at a huge disadvantage. But still, we were neck-and-neck ’til the last three months. First prize was $20,000, and we won second — $10,000.”
A PTA booster track event last spring raised $18,000 more, for $30,000 total, to build and maintain the outdoor classroom. “It’s amazing,” said Pivarnik. “It’s unbelievable to see a dream realized, especially when you aim big and it gets bigger than you ever thought.”
But she said it wouldn’t have been possible without the whole community fundraising and supporting her efforts. She especially praised J&M Landscaping, Portugal Construction and Custom Fence. And at the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the classroom, Lees Corner Principal Bob D’Amato told those attending how proud he was of the school’s accomplishment, of Pivarnik and of contractor and parent Dave Trumbull.
D’Amato said Pivarnik’s “sheer joy for connecting the environment and school was contagious. She applied for every grant possible and we set goals and made plans for implementation. And we realized we could do it with hard work and dedication.”
As for Trumbull, D’Amato said, “He reached out and helped design and develop this beautiful project, and his team of contractor friends helped build it. He realized what a great learning opportunity it’ll be for students for years to come, and we’re grateful for all their generosity. And our parents raised money and helped assemble the benches.”
He said the outdoor classroom fits right in with Lees Corner’s green-school initiative. And the school is taking three paths to achieve it. The first is cutting back on electricity use to save energy. During the last school year, Lees Corner saved more than $4,000 this way.
The second is reducing waste. “We saved over 500 pounds of food in our cafeteria last year, put it in our refrigerator and donated it to a local food bank at the end of each week,” said D’Amato. “It was food the students didn’t eat during the week. And we’ll eventually grow our own fruits and vegetables here to serve in the cafeteria.”
The third path is healthy living by making sure the school staff and students are healthy. “Our teachers ran or walked an additional 2,400 miles last year,” said D’Amato. “And we have Fun, Fit Fridays. In the morning, we play music, and the students and teachers run or walk around the track. It relieves stress and gets the kids ready to learn.”
And each day, he said, “Our staff continues to grow and learn about nature and the environment. Our kids love this outdoor learning space; and as principal, I’m proud to lead this charge. But we appreciate you all and thank you for taking this step with us.”
Also addressing the crowd, Pivarnik said, “This is the end of one phase of our journey and the beginning of many possibilities to come. At the start, seven or eight years ago, I asked, ‘What if?’ What if we could have more of a hands-on experience for our kids? What if we could build garden boxes here? What if our garden spaces were accessible to all students — and what if they reflected our curriculum, instead of just being ornamental?
“What if a garden could teach and sustain, support and inspire children to care about a living thing that depends on us? And what if that caring is extended to our relationships, our jobs and into the community outside of Lees Corner?”
So Pivarnik started researching gardens and the value of children being outdoors. And that’s especially important today, she said. “when so many children spend so much time indoors, looking at an electronic screen. Here, they can plant pollinator gardens and organic produce and marry what they learn to social studies and other subjects.”
For example, she said, students could use Colonial methods to start their gardens and could host Thomas Jefferson’s plants. Then they could have poetry time and read books on the grass. Furthermore, said Pivarnik, “The produce we grow can also support our school families; and in exchange, the families receiving it can work in the garden.”
Then, quoting inspirational writer Steve Maraboli, she said, “Plant seeds of happiness, hope, success and love. It will all come back to you in abundance; this is the law of nature.”
Next, Region V Superintendent Frances Ivey congratulated and thanked the school. “This is an example of what can be accomplished when we have visionary leaders, opportunities and resources from businesses, and the strong support of the parents, teachers, Chantilly Pyramid, Region V principals and FCPS facilities staff,” she said. “And I look forward to the ‘what ifs’ for many years to come.”
At the end of the ceremony, just before the outdoor classroom’s ribbon-cutting, kindergarten teacher Martha Hellman gave Pivarnik a gift “in awe and in gratitude for what you’ve given to our school. It’s a gift for all of us.”