New Outdoor Classroom at Northridge Elementary: symbol and celebration of community, growth, and design thinking

Hugging the northwest face of Northridge Elementary School, there is a quiet place. Tomatoes, peppers, and other plants flourish in raised beds, with space for more to come in upcoming seasons. Wide, flat-topped rocks form beckoning seats in an inviting circle. Modest and accessible signs mark twelve wellness stations promoting mindfulness, movement, and authentic outdoor learning. Here, there is diversity and unity; peaceful calm and constant growth. This is the Northridge Elementary Outdoor Classroom, for which an official Grand Opening Ceremony was held on Friday, September 6th.  

“Please use this space responsibly and respectfully,” fourth grader Stephen Mathews urged the students, family, and community members who gathered for the Friday celebration. “This space took a lot of time and resources to create, so we want to be able to use it for many years into the future.”

The journey leading to the new Outdoor Classroom began two years ago, when then third (now, fifth) graders took a field trip to Celestial Seasonings in Gunbarrel. During the field trip, the concept of growing and selling local produce was introduced, and students were inspired. They returned to school asking, “Can we do that? We should grow plants to sell here at our school!” Teachers responded that the idea was amazing, and the third grade class set to work. The dove into research. What would grow best? What would parents want? They collected data and landed on what crops to plant.

“We wanted to sell carrots, tomatoes, and peppers,” says fifth grader Gio Rodriguez, one of the original third graders. “We researched garden beds, surveyed our families to see what vegetables they wanted, and interviewed a Master Gardener.”

Before the garden could be built, however, there was the matter of funding. The third grade team, with STEM Coordinator Jodi Garner, began applying for grants. When they fell short on the funding needed, undaunted students determined to raise the remainder themselves. “We made a thinking map,” Rodriguez says. “We narrowed down our ideas until we decided to sell slime and Takis. We filmed commercials to advertise our fundraiser and made the slime ourselves. We raised enough money to build the garden in just one week!”

Students raised enough money in that one week to build a garden. Volunteers constructed raised beds. Students ceremonially added the soil and plants at the school’s 2017 STEM Expo. From that point, the third graders tended their garden throughout the year, with summer school attendees taking over when school was out of session. The project was so successful, the following year attention turned to how to expand it to a schoolwide effort, for whole school and community, use?

Northridge Elementary applied for the prestigious Colorado Succeeds Excellence in STEM Education Award, undertaking a comprehensive application process which began with thoroughly demonstrating the STEM initiatives already in progress at the school. “Committee members came to interview community members, parents, teachers, and students, all in separate panels,” Garner shares. “It was exciting, and nerve-wracking, too.”

Northridge Elementary’s application was impressive. They learned in September of 2018 they were being awarded the funding. The news was received with great celebration…and then the whole school really got down to work. “All of last year, all students were engaged in a thorough design thinking process,” Garner says. “Students were involved in every step.”

“This project has all been about building collective efficacy and community,” says Principal Lorynda Sampson. Throughout all of last academic year, students brainstormed, collected data, examined trends, built empathy, narrowed choices, and voted and voted again and again. Family members voted, too, at Family Conferences. Students made compromises, looking at possibilities in light of standards alignment, goals, and finances. “Our motto is school-ready, career-ready, life-ready,” Sampson says. “Life is not later, it’s now. We want to provide as many opportunities for kids and families to see that what they’re doing is applicable in their lives, now and in the future.”

What is in the future for the Outdoor Classroom? There is a world of possibilities, and you can bet students and their families will be fully engaged and empowered when it comes to determining just what transpires. Hopeful plans include growing enough produce to sell. Other popular ideas include adding a track and a flume where students and community members can learn about water tables.

At the Grand Opening, Rodriguez and Mathews delivered speeches celebrating the new space and the journey getting there. A small Farmers Market was held, with students having priced, packaged, and marketed produce from local grower Ollin Farms. Students used some of that produce to offer a salsa-making demonstration. A ribbon-cutting ceremony officially invited the school wide and larger community to enjoy the outdoor space. “This is a really big deal,” Sampson says. “For many students, this may be the first time they’ve had a big-picture dream where they’ve been heard and seen it come to fruition. We want kids to know: your voice matters. We can do hard things when we work together.”