Culpeper volunteers turn school courtyard into outdoor classrooms | Local News |

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From left, Culpeper senior football players Bennett Sutherland, Larry Willams and Malachi Terrell work in the courtyard of Emerald Hill Elementary School to help create an outdoor learning space for teachers in the coming of spring.

From left to right, Culpeper County High School football coach Shelby Butler and players Jacob Roman, Dillan Shifflet, Bahilu Kebede and Logan Allen scattered gravel


Tori Gelbert, the principal of Emerald Mountain Elementary School, describes her vision for the school yard

January 16.

Students Bhailu Kebede and Dillan Shifflett used tools to excavate the courtyard of Emerald Hill Elementary.

Most of us dream, but we have few dreams.

Tori Gelbert dreams of doing something, and with the great help of the Culpeper community, is making it a reality.

Seizing her inspiration, more than twenty students and adults are creating outdoor classrooms in the unused central courtyard of the school.

That night, Galbert thought of the idea in his sleep, even though the principal of Emerald Hill Elementary School said she confessed it embarrassingly.

The principal is a runner who used to be a track coach. He dreamed of building a grand opening of a track in the wing of Emerald Hill. These tracks were gathered around a central courtyard where some teachers passed Picnic table for lunch break is often held in four afternoons.

She reported working the next day and determined to do something to improve the outdoor space for students to use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When I started work, I said, yes, we have to finish it. We are doing it."

However, the staff used a measuring wheel to measure the size of the yard and quickly determined that it was not large enough to accommodate any type of track.

She asked the teachers what they thought could be built in the space, and then the project developed from there.

Gelbert and his staff decided to transform the overgrown lawn in the yard into a series of defined spaces that could hold three outdoor courses at a time.

One study area will have picnic tables; the other will use tree stumps as seats lining gravel. A large circle paved with stones will occupy the center. The concrete paver path will connect three different learning spaces.

Gelbert said: "With a tight budget, if people in the community get involved, we decided we could do this."

Stacey Timmons, the executive director of operations for the school department, signed the joint venture agreement.

"All children are very excited about this project," Gilbert said in an interview earlier this month, the day before the hardest work began. "Before the winter vacation, our [parent teacher organization] conducted a fundraising event to help cover most of the expenses. Then I walked over and asked the students to tell their parents."

A month ago, prospective educators and special education students at Culpeper County High School removed vines from indoor walls and cleared some weeds from the lawn.

The principal said that Emerald Hill hopes to prepare the yard in two months.

Gelbert said: "The reason we are so fast is because we are going to have a large unveiling ceremony with students and donors before the April deadline so that the children can go out and use these spaces."

In this year’s academic calendar, June 3 will be the last day of school.

She said that under current COVID-19 regulations in Virginia, students can participate in outdoor classes without masks, as long as they stay at least 6 feet away.

When the Culpeper County High School football team is willing to help, it is important to use the project as a team building activity. Dan and Caroline Roman’s two sons played for the Blue Devils, and they linked Gelbert to the team.

On January 16, everyone donated some sweat equity.

With the support of their coach, 28 members of the football team completed most of the physical work. They dug a lot of grass on the lawn of the yard so that they could be replaced by gravel roads.

"We are also very grateful to all the coaches!" Gelbert said. "They came out to help."

All eight high school coaches participated in the game, including football head coach James Ford (James Ford); junior high school principal Austin Pickett (Austin Pickett); and assistant coach Carlos Hercules (Carlos Hercules); Jim Charlton, Nick Zajkowski, health and physical education teachers; Sports marketing teacher Shelby Butler.

Local companies donated all materials used for the event.

Dunivan's outdoor service department provided the tree stumps and used polyurethane sealant as a stool.

84 Lumber donated wood to build a large whiteboard, which teachers will use to teach lessons.

A&B Kearns Trucking Company and Culpeper Stone Company donated paving stones worth approximately US$6,000, or 8 pallet loads, for these trails.

Luck Stone, who runs the Culpeper quarry near Xiaomashan, donated 13 tons of crushed stone.

Culpeper Wood Preserves and Cardinal Home Center donated pillars and wood as welcome signs and classrooms.

Wrie and Brie Schmidt donated snacks and provided help during the working day. At lunch, a school staff member donated pizza for everyone.

Galbert said that in addition to the classroom, there are three local scouts planned projects to improve the courtyard.

Girl Scout Miranda Prezleski planned a sensory garden.

Drew Manuel plans to build a herb and vegetable garden with raised beds, and Landon Bretschneider plans to make stools for the study area. Both young people are working on their Eagle Scout project.

Galbert said: "I am very grateful to all our community partners and the generosity of our town to help us realize this project."

Culpeper Star-Index editor Emily Jennings contributed to this report.

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