Portsmouth school celebrates opening of outdoor classroom

Space at Melville School includes rain garden that removes pollutants from runoff

By Jim McGaw
Posted 6/13/22

PORTSMOUTH — It’s almost as if Melville Elementary School knew what was coming.

“We did this pre-COVID,” said Sara Churgin, manager of the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation …

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Portsmouth school celebrates opening of outdoor classroom

Space at Melville School includes rain garden that removes pollutants from runoff

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — It’s almost as if Melville Elementary School knew what was coming.

“We did this pre-COVID,” said Sara Churgin, manager of the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District (ERICD), said of the outdoor classroom and rain garden behind the school that celebrated its ribbon-cutting on Friday.

“This took on a whole other meaning when COVID hit. The use of it was just exponential. It really started us thinking more about how important outdoor classrooms are. A lot of of we’ve been doing going forward is getting kids outside for experiential learning,” Churgin said, adding that the student-run AgInnovation Farm at Cloverbud Ranch on Jepson Lane is another example of that.

Officially known as the Outdoor Learning Activity Zone, the circular design includes stone benches, a small wooden bridge, and multiple plantings.

The project, completed in 2020, was made possible by a partnership between ERICD, Thrive Outside, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, and Melville School.

“We were able to come tougher and broke ground in summer of 2019 for this amazing outdoor learning adventure zone,” said Deputy Superintendent Elizabeth Viveiros, who was principal at Melville when the outdoor learning space was planned and created. “Our vision was to ensure we supported our students with outdoor learning in a way that made the learning authentic, and we’ve accomplished that..”

Since 2019, about 1,000 students have used the outdoor leaning zone, she said. 

“Little did we realize how important outdoor learning was going to become to our students. During the entire pandemic, we were able to have our students participate in outdoor learning here,” Viveiros said.

The project, she said, “has certainly placed the Portsmouth school district in the lead when it comes to outdoor education and the envy of many neighboring communities. I can’t tell you how many phone calls I get that ask me, ‘How did that happen? How were you able to create it?’ Luckily we got in before all of the costs of creating such a project spiked up.”

The rain garden is embedded in the curriculum, Churgin said. “We’re doing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) teaching out here. We had to also make sure the faculty was on board,” she said.

And they are, as students are learning exactly how the rain garden works. It collects polluted stormwater that would normally flow into Melville Pond, an integral water source in the Narragansett Bay Watershed. Each year it will remove an average of .48 pounds of phosphorus, .33 pounds of zinc, and 4.28 pounds of nitrogen, according to Churgin.

RIDOT provided funding for the rain garden. “If there are stormwater issues that are being caused by state roads — it was coming off West Main — they earn credits if they take it up. It’s better to be working with a partner to do it. They helped with some of the design,” said Churgin, noting a similar stormwater mitigation project is happening at Kickemuit Middle School in Warren.

The garden also has many pollinators which are “important for the bees and birds,” she added.

The handicap-accessible space, which takes up one third of the school’s back field, also serves as a peaceful oasis for students who just want to wind down. Instead of climbing on the playground on the other side of the yard at recess, they can come here to read or just to chill out, she said.

“We also wanted it to be used for the community to be able to use on off-school hours — weekends and summer,” Churgin said.

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