MANCHESTER – Whiting Elementary School unveiled its new outdoor classroom – the first of its kind in the Manchester Township School District – at its recent wellness fair.
“Whiting School is known as the little school with the big heart, and this event along with the building of this outdoor classroom is certainly proof of that,” Principal Evelyn Swift said to the crowd of staff, students and families gathered.
The open, outdoor classroom – it resembles a pavilion one would see at a local park or beach – was three years in the making.
“We had a vision lead by myself and C.J. Titmas and Natalie Baranyay to take steps toward making Whiting School more environmentally friendly and sustainable,” Swift said. Everyone pulled together to achieve “bronze” status with Sustainable Jersey, a “nonprofit organization that provides tools, training and financial incentives to support communities as they pursue sustainability programs,” according to its website.
To achieve that status, Whiting School had to establish a “green team,” and complete a number of steps outlined by Sustainable Jersey. (Schools and municipalities can work toward achieving silver and gold status by implementing more environmentally friendly changes and programs.)
Being part of the Sustainable Jersey program also opened up the school for grants, many of them funded by companies like PSE&G. The school’s first attempt to secure a grant was rejected, but finally Whiting School secured a $10,000 grant from the energy giant to build the outdoor classroom.
“The process has been a long one but the outcome, as you can see, has been well worth it,” Swift said.
The Wildcats Wilderness Workspace Outdoor Classroom was funded by PSE&G through Sustainable NJ for Schools. The buildings and grounds crew poured the concrete foundation, and benches and the large white board were donated by Mark Hingston.
Whiting School is nestled in an ecosystem unique to New Jersey: The Pine Barrens, the reserve that blankets seven counties, 56 municipalities and 1.1 million acres, 22 percent of the entire state. Second-grade teacher Baranyay and fourth-grade teacher Titmas joined Swift and Superintendent David Trethaway in saying that besides the obvious benefits of students being outdoors, the location lends itself to a live study of the environment and fragile ecosystems.
“It allows them to get out of the classroom and get their hands on things. It gives students the appreciation for what’s going on around them,” Trethaway said of the outdoor classroom.
Whiting is just one of nearly 900 schools participating in Sustainable Jersey for Schools, Program Director Heather McCall said. Out of those, only 242 are bronze or silver certified. The program has given out $1.8 million in grants to participating schools.
“Whiting Elementary is part of that select group among state public schools that shine through as a leader in sustainability education and sustainable practices and teaching your kids and your students to be ready for the future, so you have so much to be proud of here,” McCall said.
Donald Webster Jr., past Manchester Board of Education president and New Jersey School Boards Association Immediate Past President, saw the need four years ago for schools to join the sustainability movement. The schools not only benefit from going green, they attract “green” from major funders who provide money for projects like the outdoor classroom.
“[Sustainability] is a topic that’s certainly timely and very important for the next generation, our children,” Webster said. As such, he’s serving as a trustee for Sustainable Jersey. “As I travel around the state and see all the projects that have been undertaken by the schools, I’m confident that our next generation will step up to the challenges that we face as a society.”