Guilford Elementary School

Shirelle Bennett, deputy director of the Howard County Department of Housing, discusses Guilford Elementary School's newly renovated outdoor learning center, unveiled Thursday, May 17, as project manager Marcus Ervin looks on. (Photo by Phil Grout / May 17, 2012)

The sounds of a brass band drifted through the spring air Thursday night at Guilford Elementary School in Columbia. The music led visitors behind the school, past the modular classrooms and to the kick-off of the school's Night of Excellence — and a new outdoor learning center.

"This is our newly renovated outdoor learning space," Principal Genée Varlack proudly told the crowd gathered for the opening of a project at least two years in the making.

The school had several partners in the project, Varlack said, including Harkin Builders and the Shelter Group, the builders and developers behind the neighboring Monarch Mills Apartments, and Flour Teeters Landscape Architects, who designed the space. The developers and the school had been in talks for about two years to renovate the outdoor leaning space, Varlack said, but it was only this year that the plan took root.

"All we had before was old and unusable and unsafe," Varlack said. "There was nothing out here but wooden benches that were falling apart, and a raised wooden platform that was rotted in places."


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It was a shame, Varlack said, because teachers wanted to use the area but were limited in doing so. Now, where the old benches and stage used to be, is a concrete patio, with a small wall for students to sit on, and six picnic tables made from composite material that won't rot or rust.

The materials cost $30,000, said Maria Miller, senior development director at Shelter Group, which covered the bill, and all the labor was done pro bono.

"This is an incredible use of the space, much more conducive to learning," Varlack said. "We wanted to improve it; this is a great spot, this glen area, and there's a lot of plants, a lot of different animals, different birds.

"It's great for science classes. ... But any, all and every class and after-school group can use this. Reading classes can come out here with blankets and books, too."

Board of Education member Ellen Giles, who was on hand to cut the ceremonial blue ribbon of the learning center, noted that the school system has about 1,000 partnerships with local organizations and businesses. But, she added, "few represent something as tangible, long-lasting and sustainable as this."

'A lot more fun'

Not many classes have been able to use the space so far, Varlack said, as the learning center was completed "a few months ago" and students only began going outside once the weather turned warmer. But students were looking forward to using the new center.

"I didn't really enjoy (the outdoor classroom) before, but now it's better and a lot more fun to be in," said fifth-grader Kelsey Terrasa, 10, daughter of County Council member Jen Terrasa.

Third-graders Grace Yodzis, 9 and Leah Russell, 8, agreed.

"It's nice to have class outdoors," Leah said. "It's just more fun, and I like to be outside."

Second-grade para-educator Esther Drake said it would be nice to see the students develop the space and make it their own over the years.

"This is a plus for the school," she said.

It's a new classroom that some of the students will only be able to enjoy for a short time, however: several dozen are being redistricted to Atholton Elementary in the fall — including Leah and Grace.

"It's sad to leave Guilford," Grace said. "I've always wanted an outside classroom like this, but there's one at Atholton, so it might be OK."