HOWELL – Imagine sitting behind a desk all day while staring at notes written on a whiteboard.
Now, imagine walking through a garden, touching plants, creating music, and engaging in team building activities.
Which one seems more interesting?
For Howell’s Memorial Elementary School, the choice was easy. Memorial Elementary is combining education with nature to create a more innovative and fun classroom space for students.
The school used a $10,000 grant from OceanFirst Bank to create their first outdoor model classroom, coined The Bulldog Retreat. The new space was officially opened on April 18 with a ribbon cutting.
“The outdoor classroom…is a vision come to life,” stated officials from Memorial Elementary.
The Bulldog Retreat offers various classroom-type spaces where students can engage with their surroundings by using outdoor whiteboards, performing STEAM building challenges, or walking through a sensory garden filled with calming plants. Kids can even step on stage to conduct reader’s theatre on a musical station equipped with functional instruments.
The space was designed to be inclusive and collaborative, while serving up a wide variety of activities for all student interests.
Fourth grader Cady Bergamino stated: “I love the sensory garden because I love the smell and feel of lavender. The smell of lavender calms me.”
This design for this “revolutionary” learning center was led by computer science teacher Skye Donzelli. Principal Ray Gredder noted that Donzelli led a team of teachers through the grant writing process over a year ago. After the school was awarded with the grant in October, Donzelli organized her team to execute the vision. The Memorial team included media specialist Jennifer Stenard, classroom teachers Sonia Rivera, Laura Grube, Lois Muhaw, special education teachers Angela O’Cone and Mike Savino, instructional coach Erin Lowman and guidance counselor Samantha Murrillo.
“This space is a truly unique and special. The hard work that Mrs. Donzelli put in to lead this effort is monumental. She is supported by an amazing team of teachers who dedicated themselves to personally designing this space for our students,” said Principal Gredder. “We are blessed to have such dedicated staff, such strong support from our senior administration and Board of Education, from our PTA and we are especially thankful to our partners at OceanFirst Bank for their time, generosity and care for our school.”
Not only does The Bulldog Retreat focus on innovative and active learning, but it also highlights “the peaceful choice” with a giant peace rock garden accented with stones decorated by students and staff. Before being named The Bulldog Retreat, its original title was The Outdoor Classroom for the Peaceful Path, Gredder said.
Adding to that “peaceful” theme are friendship benches, outdoor games, and designated student “Peace Leaders,” which help to guide others and foster relationships in the space.
The Bulldog Retreat is not Memorial’s first model classroom either. Memorial is also home to special education programs such as autistic education, cognitively impaired classrooms and multiply disabled classrooms.
Memorial also has a STEM Room, The Bulldog Think Tank, and is looking to launch its own STEM center in the near future.
“We are all in this together for the reason of helping children. We love to tell our story and help others if we can, it has been a big focus for our school district and we will continue to keep our doors open here at Memorial,” Gredder added.
The essence of the outdoor model classroom can be described by Memorial student Juliet Bonevich, who stated: “I like getting to go outside more, not for recess, but to learn. It gets me excited about learning!”