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Wetlands, old rail line OK’d to become outdoor classroom in Agawam

Date: 8/8/2023

AGAWAM — It’s been years in the making, but an outdoor classroom project at Agawam Junior High School that will benefit students and the community could soon become a reality.

City councilors recently approved $40,000 in conservation funds for design and engineering for the Feeding Hills Community Preservation project that will use about 20 acres of school-owned wetlands in Feeding Hills that extend from the school building to Shoemaker Lane. According to AJHS Principal Norm Robbins the wetlands area will be used for a variety of student and public activities.

“We want to create an outdoor classroom similar to the one at the high school — but with a walking path through the wetlands,” said Robbins. A raised section of the pathway will be 700 to 1,000 feet long while the entire path, about a mile long, will loop back to the front of the school and be accessible to the public.

“We’re definitely excited to see it moving forward and recapture the momentum that was on hold for several years,” he said of the project that could take one to two years to complete. R. Levesque Associates was hired to guide the project through the design and engineering process and complete a master plan for the Conservation Commission to approve.

Planning for an outdoor classroom at the school began in 2018 following the completion of a garden area at the back of the school. The outdoor area with pavers, garden boxes and places for students to sit and eat, is a place that classes can use now.

“We started thinking about what we could do if there was an actual outdoor classroom on school land,” said Robbins.

Sandee Johnson, a retired AJHS science teacher who helped start the project, said that after months of research and planning, “we were on a roll in designing the classroom” when the coronavirus pandemic hit, halting everything.

Johnson said the school grounds have wetlands, streams and forest areas that are “the perfect setting” for an outdoor classroom. She’s thrilled that the project is moving again.

“It will offer students a unique area to connect to nature and learn about their environment through direct observation, hands-on problem solving and collaboration with fellow students,” she said.

Laura Fallon, a guidance counselor at the school, has been working with Robbins to get the project approved by the town’s Conservation Commission. She was impressed with the idea of turning the space into an outdoor classroom when she first walked the old rail bed — the remains of a line that once ran through Feeding Hills and ceased operations more than 100 years ago.

Fallon also realized the Conservation Commission would need to be involved with the project.

“We’ve had many informal meetings on site with Chair Henry Kozloski and other board members to make the best use of the space with the least disturbance,” she said.

Lisa Wolfe and Pietro Abruzzo, both STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers, and Nicole Roderick, a grade 7 science teacher, have been collaborating with Robbins and Fallon on the project, and are eager to see it completed.

Wolfe, who works with seventh graders, said the project is an example of how multiple disciplines can come together to achieve a common goal.

“I look forward to showing students how wetland scientists and environmental engineers collaborate to create designs for large scale projects like this one,” she said. “Students and other community members will have an easily accessible space to learn about local history, plants and wildlife.”

A large pollinator garden and orchard, called Blossoming Minds Orchard, will occupy about an acre of land at the back of the school.

“It will be the perfect place to hold discussions with students about the importance of creating a habitat for pollinators. The orchard also will be a great location for students in our after-school Conservation Club to spend time caring for the garden and observing pollinators at work,” Wolfe said.

Abruzzo, who works in grade 8, said the project will involve students in protecting and preserving land that their town was built on.

“The raised pathways and the loop around the school will bring the community to our building and create more learning opportunities — both for students and for residents,” he said.
Roderick said the area is a perfect setting for students to go outside and directly observe important wetland and forest ecosystems.

“Students can apply what they’re learning in the classroom — making learning so much more authentic,” she said. “I want students to be inspired by nature.”

She said going outdoors to directly observe how an ecosystem functions will lead students to ask questions, make connections and be inspired. “This perhaps to me is the most important part of this project.”

The feature Roderick’s most excited about is the raised pathway through the wetlands and the orchard. She said these elements will allow “ample teachable moments” to apply the curriculum.

“We want students to be inspired, we want to stimulate their curiosity and, most importantly, we want to make learning as authentic as possible,” Roderick said. “Not only will students benefit from this project but so will members of the community.”

Robbins said the historical aspect of the site offers a great way to make generational connections in the community.

“Students could interview seniors to capture a living history of what the area was like when they were growing up and document how it has changed,” she said. “We want to create digital kiosks at various locations along the path using historical information from historians and from what students gather.”

Plans also include seating in the wetlands area along the raised pathway and with cutouts and viewing platforms — similar to the one overlooking a creek at the high school’s outdoor classroom — where students can sit, read, write, draw or take scientific data.

“We want to have Wi-Fi available so students can bring their Chromebooks,” said Robbins. “In front of the school, there will be an outdoor classroom space on the grass area near the walking path where AJHS and Granger students can sit and do work. Our goal is to create a community-accessible area that’s also functional for both Granger and AJHS students.”