Outdoor Classroom Exceeds Imagination

            Little could Joanne Smith and Kirsten Jimenez realize in January 2020 just how significant their little idea would be to the children attending Rochester Memorial School a year later.

            Entrenched in a normal winter, Smith, an art teacher at the town’s elementary school, and Jimenez, the Parent-Teacher Organization president, began discussing and planning an outdoor learning space that they envisioned would open in Spring 2020 in one of the school’s courtyards.

            “We had no idea what was to come about with COVID in March of 2020 and schools closing. We had already begun planning ideas and needed funding,” said Smith, who serves as project coordinator. “When the Tri-Town Education Foundation Learning Grant came up, we decided that this would be something to apply for to help fund student benches and a teacher workstation.”

            Smith and three other Rochester Memorial faculty members associated with the project were awarded $2,000, according to Tri-Town Education Foundation member and Old Rochester Regional School District Web Coordinator Erin Bednarczyk.

            Two months after Jimenez and Smith began discussions, Massachusetts had shut down school for the duration of the 2019-20 academic year, and only recently have Old Rochester Regional district schools reinstituted a full, in-person learning model for grades K-6. Over a year later, plans are in place for a full return for all grades later this month.

            Despite a pandemic that knew no end a year ago, Kate Duggan, Melissa Weigel, Cindy Baronas, and Tracey Forns helped Jimenez and Smith form a committee representing grade levels and parents to enact the project that is known today as the Nurse Thayer Memorial Outdoor Classroom.

            The space is dedicated to the late Joanne Thayer, who served as school nurse at Rochester Memorial. Thayer’s body was claimed by cancer, but her legacy belongs to Rochester students.

            “Nurse Thayer was a caring and dedicated nurse. Also, her grandchildren attended RMS and her daughter, Karin Henry, still works in our Project Grow (program),” said Smith. “It was appropriate to name it after a nurse in (light) of the (pandemic) and all the medical workers who are caring for COVID patients.”

            Classes in all grades and specialist classes like art and music, from primary to upper grades, have used the space this year.

            “Mr. Edmund and Pat O’Connell from Marion heard about the story and it touched their hearts, as his wife was also a retired nurse and their grandchildren attended RMS,” said Smith. “They then reached out to help fund the rest of the money needed for the teacher workstation.”

            Equipped with a dry erase board, the teacher workstation, along with the benches, was custom designed and handcrafted by local woodworker Rodney Fielding in Wareham. In all, the project was completed for under $3,000 and will be completed with mulch, flowers, and garden boxes.

            “You never know, you get these ideas. We started to have lunch and talk about it,” said Smith. “The Tri-Town Education Foundation learning grant was awesome; we’ve definitely been using it. The benches were set up in the fall until it got too cold, and when it warmed up, we started using it again.”

            The teacher’s station was completed a week ago, making for what Smith called “an easily accessible” site capable of “getting all the kids outside where they can have a mask break and snacks. It’s a comfy little space.”

            There is a sign-up sheet on location, but cooperation has not been outdone by competition.

            “Not yet,” said Smith. “Right now, everyone’s been good to each other, sharing the space.”

            With the next application deadline extended by five days, the next Tri-Town Education Foundation Meeting has been rescheduled for April 27.

By Mick Colageo

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