SCHUYLERVILLE, N.Y. — Mid-March in upstate New York can sometimes find up to a foot of snow still on the ground.
This year, exactly one week before spring, more than two dozen high school boys — some with short-sleeved T-shirts — worked up a sweat while building an outdoor classroom for kids at Schuylerville Central Schools.
The students are part of a career-oriented Environmental Conservation and Forestry class offered by a nearby Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (The BOCES program partners with school districts to provide a broad range of career-technical education classes in all different trades.)
“I really like it,” said Jake Prophet, a high school senior from Ballston Spa, N.Y. “I’ve learned a lot about equipment and how to log properly. Plus, I love the outdoors.”
Students do a variety of forestry-related projects throughout the area. In Glens Falls and Fort Edward, they’ve trimmed trees that were crowding school buildings.
In Northumberland and Wilton, they built trails on property owned by Saratoga County. They also use that location for training in forestry, water conservation, wildlife and nature studies.
An Outdoor Classroom
The outdoor classroom in Schuylerville, N.Y., is located behind the elementary school, cut out of a wooded slope overlooking athletic fields. The site was cleared last fall. Recently, two area tree service firms donated a large supply of wood chips for a natural groundcover.
BOCES students worked all day, on March 13, to spread more than 50 yards of the material. Some loaded chips onto a small dump-truck type vehicle, while others filled buckets and carried them to the location.
Additional plans call for adding benches, built by parents and students. The outdoor classroom will be dedicated this spring. The spot was intentionally sited away from school buildings.
“School officials feel this will free the kids’ minds and help them be more engaged with subject material,” said Wendy Liberatore, BOCES spokesperson.
According to Liberatore, the outdoor classroom will be a natural fit for science and art classes, but it can be used for any subject matter, at any grade level, when it’s nice out.
“I wish we had something like this when I was a kid,” said high school senior Devin Freebern, of Schuylerville. “Younger kids are definitely going to benefit from this. They say that kids today spend 44 hours per week inside in front of TVs and computers and only 40 minutes outside. The more we can get them outside, the better off they’ll be.”
The project was initiated by parent volunteer Betty Gifford, who said she heard about a similar effort at a school in South Carolina. Impressed by the concept, she presented it to school officials, who quickly got on board.
Parents Cindy Wian and Deborah McGloine have also been very instrumental in advancing the outdoor classroom.
“The collaboration has been phenomenal,” said Gregg Barthelmas, elementary school principal.
Previously, volunteers built a nearby butterfly garden for kids.
“We’re hoping to plant things everywhere, just to pretty up the school yard,” Gifford said.
The outdoor classroom ties in with the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools initiative. That program recognizes schools that are leaders in improving the health and wellness of students and staff; reducing environmental impacts and costs; and providing effective environmental education.
Flynn said that several of his former students have gone on to successful careers in these fields. One of them, Chuck Rogers of Charlton, N.Y., added tree service to his Country Cut Landscaping firm and has hired other students as well.
“They’re doing quite well,” Flynn said.
Saving Streams with Logging Bridges
In a separate venture, his students are taking part in a bridge building project for loggers, to keep them from disturbing sensitive wetlands in the woods.
The nonprofit Resource Conservation & Development Council previously obtained a grant from the Vermont Department of Environmental Protection. Money was used to buy bridges that can be loaned to loggers in the Lake Champlain watershed area.
With the bridges, loggers can move heavy skidders across the sturdy 20-foot long spans without disturbing small streams.
Recently, Lyme Timber Company, which now manages former International Paper Co. land in the Adirondack Park, donated timber to BOCES.
After sawing the timbers on portable sawmill at the school, students will assemble the bridge panels and make them available for RC&DC to loan to area loggers. Most important, they will be used in places beyond the original Champlain region.
“This gives us a chance to service more loggers,” said Jim Campopiano, a professional forester and RCDC spokesman.
It also opens students’ eyes to career possibilities and gives them invaluable hands-on experience in the process.