Tuesday, May 24, 2022

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New Open-Air Meeting Space at Chester Elementary School To Complement Existing Facilities

An open-air classroom and meeting space at Chester Elementary School (CES) is expected to be ready for use by the start of next school year, providing benefits only a natural environment can offer.

Although acknowledging the recent focus and importance of “healthy and safe” air environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lol Fearon, who is spearheading the project with Charlene Fearon, says it’s not the only reason.

“We also recognize from the research that’s been done over the years, not just in response to COVID, but over the years, that outdoor learning can improve the mood of students and also reduce stress levels,” said Lol Fearon.

He added that the project aligns with the town’s stewardship of the environment, as outlined in its Plan of Conservation and Development, and that it’s a way of “role modeling that kind of commitment to a healthy environment.”

Discussions for the project started in the spring, with the Fearons wanting to contribute to the community as longtime residents of Chester. Charlene Fearon is a member on the Chester Board of Education.

The Fearons worked with Cassandra “Cassie” Archer, a senior architect at Centerbrook Architects and Planners, who donated her time to help develop design plans and renderings of the structure.

The proposed 25’6” x 34’6” post and beam structure will be constructed of timber and installed on a deck-like platform. Its proximity to the school, at the back of the building, means there will be a wall-mounted monitor and access to wi-fi and electricity.

Classroom features will include large, writable surface panels. Translucent roof panels will allow for penetration of natural sun light, while trellises and concrete planters will be located around the perimeter of the structure.

These embellishments are to help limit distractions during class time, “and also to give it somewhat of a safe, protective look as well, and it’s aesthetically pleasing,” said Fearon.

The space, as envisioned, will be made available on a schedule to a variety of different classes.

“It’s not limited to just an environmental science approach,” said Fearon, who added that as examples, teachers could bring students to the space for writing about outdoor observations or reading time.

CES Principal Tyson Stoddard says the proposed structure will help complement other outdoor features at the school, which include a nature trail, rain garden, and Project Adventure ropes course.

“So, to be able to accentuate our natural surroundings with a learning-friendly space is fantastic,” said Stoddard.

With several staff members already bringing students outside for class instruction, Stoddard said “the idea of having a dedicated space will promote many more opportunities for outdoor learning.”

“While COVID-19 was not the impetus for considering an outdoor space, it has certainly highlighted the benefits of getting outside and reconsidering ideal learning environments,” he added.

The school recently received a $6,000 Foster Future Environmental Stewards grant from the Rockfall Foundation that will be distributed over two years. These funds will support a scientist-in-residence program at CES, led by the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center of the Connecticut Audubon Society.

The scientist-in-residence program has a special focus on bringing classroom lessons in earth and life sciences, ecology, conservation, and citizenship to the outdoors, according to the Connecticut Audubon Society.

In addition to being used as a classroom, Fearon said the structure could also be used as an “open-air meeting space” by various groups within the community such as cub scouts or library book clubs.

“We see this as something that the community can take advantage of as well, that down the line community groups can look with appropriate requests to the school administration to reserve the space,” said Fearon.

The cost of the project is estimated to be between $50,000 and $70,000, with the Fearons already at 70 percent of their $70,000 fundraising goal as of late December 2020. Fundraising efforts will continue in 2021, with construction slated for late spring and summer in order to complete the project before for the start of the 2021–’22 school year.

The Community Foundation of Middlesex County is managing all donations for the project, which Fearon said gives “it the highest level of transparency and accountability.”

He added that the Chester Leadership Fund has made the project its “first activity to donate to…indicating that there was some community support for what we were doing.”

More information on the Open-Air Meeting Space at Chester Elementary School Fund is available at middlesexcountycf.org.

Elizabeth Reinhart covers news for Chester, Deep River, and Essex for Zip06. Email Elizabeth at e.reinhart@shorepublishing.com.

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