School Leaders Ask Share of COVID Relief Funds for Outdoor Learning

Dec 8, 2021 | Education, Government | 1 comment

Jeni Bianco, co-president of Kings Highway PTA, joined by other elementary school PTA leaders, speaks in support of using a share of the town’s ARPA funding to provide outdoor learning spaces at the schools. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — Parent leaders representing all schools in the district united this week to ask the town for less than 10 percent of the $8.4 million it will receive in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The Board of Education is poised to request roughly $713,200 from the two-year grant of COVID relief money, which would be used by its elementary, middle and high schools to expand outdoor learning.

In the case of the elementary schools, the district could be the first in the state to offer outdoor classrooms at each of its five elementary schools.

“This can be transformational in [students’] ability to focus and absorb lessons,” said Jeni Bianco, co-president of the Kings Highway PTA, as she stood with representatives of all five elementary school PTAs at the school board meeting Monday at Staples High School.

Town officials invited the school board to apply for some of the funds earlier this year and board members have spent several meetings compiling and narrowing a list of requests.

Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein cautioned the enthusiastic parents that the school district has not yet been granted the money for any projects.

The list presented this week to a largely new school board by Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, included more specifics as well as more buy-in from schools.

The PTAs at the elementary level reportedly plan to chip in to help finance outdoor classrooms at their schools.

Buono said the idea behind the outdoor classrooms would be to provide more fresh air, movement and authentic learning opportunities to support social and emotional development of students.

Among the possible use of outdoor learning spaces he cited are read-alouds, morning meetings and lessons tied to science, agriculture and even erosion.

While several area school districts have one or two such classrooms, Westport is proposing one at each elementary school.

The cost is about $80,000 to $120,000 per classroom, depending on the style.

District officials are proposing to allocate $50,000 to each school and having each school’s PTA come up with the rest of the money, depending on how elaborate they want to make the classrooms.

At Staples High School, the plan is to create an adventure learning center, featuring vertical challenges, ropes and beams geared toward team development, collaboration, problem-solving and leadership skills.

“The focus is on cooperation,” Buono said.

The new equipment, and training to use it, would cost about $63,000. It would be integrated into physical education programs and be made available to all students

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice said when he was a principal, his school had an outdoor course that gave students an opportunity to challenge themselves and push boundaries.

Tami Benanav, co-president of the Staples High School PTA, told the board that parents support the proposal.

“The course has been in the budget multiple times but never made it to the finish line,” Benanav said. “This would be one more way for students to get high schoolers outside.”

At the district’s two middle schools, between $200,000 and $400,000 would be spent to create playscapes.

Currently, sixth through eighth graders have playing fields and basketball hoops during recess, but little else.

“Middle schools have suffered during the pandemic,” Jill Dillon, co-president of the Coleytown Middle School PTA, told the board. “We would love to have these play structures … Please support this.”

Board member Kevin Christie said he loves the outdoor learning ideas.

Board member Dorie Hordon was also a fan.

Board member Robert Harrington wondered why the items couldn’t be voted on Monday.

Goldstein said since most school board members are new in their posts she wanted to give them a chance to discuss the proposals. 

Her intention is to bring the ARPA funding request to a vote at the Dec. 20 meeting.

1 Comment

  1. Richard Bortolot

    That really sounds like a great idea and program!! Wish it was there when I went to elementary school in the 50s.

    Looking forward to seeing more info on it. It’s the type of program that makes our great Westport education system continue to shine.

    Reply

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