Outdoor space becomes model classroom at Howell’s Memorial Elementary School

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HOWELL – At Memorial Elementary School, the definition of a traditional classroom has certainly changed.

On April 18, the school on Adelphia Road hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open an outdoor model classroom that was funded through an OceanFirst Bank grant.

The outdoor classroom, which has been named the Bulldog Retreat after the school’s mascot, is a vision that came to life with a $10,000 grant.

Principal Ray Gredder said several teachers applied for the grant and learned in October that they would receive the funding.

“Since then, the staff has really been building what is out there; ordering the equipment, laying it out, so now what we have is truly like an outdoor classroom that can be used in the fall and spring. Most of the equipment we have out there can be brought inside and used in the media center during the winter,” Gredder said.

In the outdoor space, students can move through various “classrooms” to complete activities that range from outdoor whiteboards, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) building challenges, a sensory garden where students can touch and smell calming plants, a stage, a musical station equipped with instruments, a garden and more.

“We leave it up to our teachers to get out there and use it. We will be planning some different activities, but it really is a versatile enough space where a teacher can bring out the entire class … for a traditional lesson or just to use this space,” Gredder said.

The classroom focuses students on making a peaceful choice. Its original title, The Outdoor Classroom for the Peaceful Path, is conveyed in its current form through the giant “peace” rock garden and a path lined with stones created by students and staff at the school to showcase their unique qualities and diverse natures.

Friendship benches and outdoor games such as chess, checkers and bean bag toss add to the message that this space is a collaborative space built for encouraging friendships and partnerships among students of all abilities.

The teachers who designed the space are led by computer science teacher Skye Donzelli.

Donzelli led a team of teachers through the grant writing process more than a year ago. Joining her on the team are media specialist Jennifer Stenard; classroom teachers Sonia Rivera, Laura Grube and Lois Muhaw; special education teachers Angela O’Cone and Mike Savino; instructional coach Erin Lowman; and guidance counselor Samantha Murrillo.

After being awarded the grant in October, Donzelli organized her team to execute the vision for the outdoor space.

The ribbon cutting ceremony was attended by representatives from OceanFirst Bank, senior administration from Howell Township, Howell K-8 School District Board of Education members, PTA membership, staff and students, Howell police and many other special guests.

Students designated as “Peace Leaders” served as guides and are being trained as experts on ways to use the space. The students work with school counselors and School Resource Officers Jayme Higgins and Maureen McBride to find ways to solve conflicts and weave these lessons into the routines of the classroom.

“This space is truly unique and special. The hard work Mrs. Donzelli put in to lead this effort is monumental. She is supported by an amazing team of teachers who dedicated themselves to personally designing this space for our students,” Gredder said.

“We are blessed to have such dedicated staff, such strong support from our senior administration and Board of Education, from our PTA, and we are especially thankful to our partners at OceanFirst Bank for their time, generosity and care for our school,” he said.

Memorial Elementary School educates about 300 pupils in grades three, four and five. The school is the home of special education programs such as autistic education, cognitively impaired classrooms and multiply disabled classrooms.

This is the second grant awarded to Memorial Elementary School. Currently, the school shares its STEM room, The Bulldog Think Tank, with other districts and schools that are looking to launch a strong STEM center. The plan is the same with the outdoor space, and sharing the work is something that is valued as part of the concept of a model classroom.