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New outdoor learning space revealed at Emerald Hill
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New outdoor learning space revealed at Emerald Hill


Before, the courtyard at Emerald Hill Elementary was simply a relatively unused green space in the middle of the Culpeper County school, Principal Tori Gelbert said.

Then, in a sort of pandemic-inspired epiphany, the administrator awoke in the middle of the night in late 2020 having envisioned in a dream that the space could become something more.

“My dream was about making a track out there to run around,” Gelbert said. “But as we measured it and examined it and talked about it, our ideas grew and it has become something better than I ever imagined.”

On Wednesday business and community leaders gathered at the school with educators and parents, all of whom in some way had helped bring the project to fruition.

In an official ribbon-cutting, Gelbert opened the courtyard for use, with the school mascot leading her to name the area the Eagles’ Aerie.

Re-made to include four new learning spaces for students and teachers to use, it includes a sensory garden, vertical planters, an outdoor whiteboard and 56 student stools, a rain garden and gravel “stream”—complete with a walking bridge—picnic tables and interpretive signs.

How could Gelbert have guessed so many people in the community would come forward and contribute in such a variety of ways, catching her vision and making it an even greater reality?

“Culpeper is such an amazing place, where everyone rallies together to support our schools,” Gelbert said. “This is an amazing learning space for students and I can’t wait for them to start using the space today!”

With in-person limitations and social distancing mandated for health safety over the past year, educators everywhere have re-examined learning spaces and developed new ways to embrace the outdoors, where COVID-19 is less likely to spread.

As Gelbert and the creative teachers and staffers at Emerald Hill discussed options, ideas began to pour forth. As they shared their thoughts with others, volunteers stepped forward to fill in the gaps.

A Girl Scout created a sensory garden, complete with edible flowers, wind chimes, a tree donated by Friends of the Rappahannock to attract butterflies and stepping stones for exploration.

“I started in December, coming here working non-stop every day after school,” said Miranda Prezleski, who earned a Silver Award for the project.

The Culpeper Middle School student estimated she spent about 63 hours working there, above and beyond the 50 required for the achievement.

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“I learned so much, it was great,” Prezleski said. “I had to call people and get volunteers and donations. It was a lot of work.”

Prezleski’s Troop 3126, in addition to helping create the sensory garden, also developed a shade garden in the area.

Landon Bretschneider, a Boy Scout in Culpeper Troop 196, for his Eagle Project oversaw the building of 56 child-size stools that can be moved anywhere in the courtyard for an instant classroom.

An Eagle Scout in Culpeper Troop 550, Drew Manuel, organized volunteers who constructed vertical plant towers, where flowers and vegetables are already growing.

The Culpeper County High School football team donated muscle to lay a gravel “stream” where Emerald Hill fifth-graders will leave behind painted rocks as their legacy. The athletes also laid gravel around a donated whiteboard where students can gather for impromptu lessons.

Culpeper business Turf Specialties built an attractive stone path from one end of the courtyard to the other.

Materials and supplies were donated by A&B Kearns Trucking and Stone, 84 Lumber, Culpeper Wood Preservers, Luck Stone quarry and Cardinal Home Center, among others.

“I figured out that the courtyard would have cost more than $30,000 in materials, labor, everything—but thanks to donations and volunteer labor the school only paid about $1,000 for the whole thing,” Gelbert said.

Culpeper County School Board member Pat Baker attended the ribbon-cutting, and expressed delight in the beautifully renovated courtyard. Baker was a teacher at the school when it first opened in 1997.

“I can just picture this space filled with children on a bright, sunny day, and all of them having fun learning!” Baker said.

Culpeper Schools Superintendent Anthony Brads, also there Wednesday, said he was excited for Gelbert and the teachers at Emerald Hill.

“I congratulate them for reinventing this space—it was a great idea, and I’m very glad to come here and see it,” he said.

Gelbert said none of it could have been possible without her school community at Emerald Hill—all the teachers, staff, paraprofessionals, parents and students.

“They all have been so supportive and everyone has worked so hard—I know it will be a place all of us can enjoy for years to come,” she said.

To view a slideshow about the project, visit this link.

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