ABINGDON, Va. — A group of Washington County students are getting a rock-solid education while contributing to the landscape of their school.
Students in Will Fritz’s building trades classes at the Washington County Career and Technical Education Center are using real-life skills to transform a forgotten eyesore area behind the school into an outdoor classroom, featuring a fish pond, water wheel and eventually tables and chairs and an outdoor grilling addition.
A goal of the project is to let students know what opportunities are available in the skilled trades field, said Fritz, the building trades instructor.
The students are working on a host of projects this year, but the one that’s getting the most attention from students and teachers is the construction of the outdoor classroom.
The class project actually started out as a large fish pond in the mid 1990s but never reached completion, according to Brian Johnson, principal of the education center. “We’re excited about this new outdoor classroom and what it will mean to our teachers and students here for years to come,” said Johnson.
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The second-year building trades students are utilizing skills in carpentry to build concrete forms, electrical to wire a water pump, plumbing to design and select a water system and masonry to lay the stone.
Retired masonry instructor Johnny Blevins is giving the students pointers on how to spread mortar, pour concrete and lay stonework.
Blevins, who taught at the center for 20 years, returns to the school six to eight weeks each year to teach the masonry program that was incorporated into the building trades curriculum when he retired three years ago.
Blevins explained that he and his masonry students decided to revisit the project five years ago while he was still teaching, this time turning the neglected fish pond into a much larger area for students and teachers to enjoy.
The hands-on learning experience will require several semesters to complete.
“I get excited about it. I love coming back here because I get to help with the fun stuff,” said the retiree.
According to Fritz, the project is a win-win for both the school and the students.
“The students are learning as they participate in the project, and that builds their skill set when they go out into the community, but they also are giving back to their school community by doing things to beautify the property and to make it more usable.
“We have many projects going right now — projects that will benefit the school and make our school more presentable so it will stand out. But, at the same time, the students are learning building skills they will continue to use after graduation in the real world,” said Fritz.
Even though a small percentage of his graduating students will enter into the construction field, all of them will leave having practical knowledge, said Fritz. “If they leave here able to build a deck on their homes or replace a light fixture, then we as teachers have succeeded,” he said.
Reggie Daugherty, a senior in the building trades program, said he’s enjoying learning all that he can. “I feel like I’ve learned almost everything under the sun. Even if you don’t go into the construction field, you’re still going to own a house one day. These are good skills to have.”
Adam Keen, also a senior, wants to be a general contractor after graduation, specializing in concrete and masonry work. “Working on projects like this — not only this one but others we do — really gives a good set of skills you’ll have later in life.”
Student Kaden Sweet agreed that constructing the outdoor classroom has been a meaningful project. “Being able to put my name on this project to show what I did is pretty cool.”
Other building trades students involved in the project are Carter Lively, Carson Austin and Yenesew Smith.
The process began by filling the original cavity that was made for the earlier fish pond with remnants of crushed bricks and cinderblocks. A concrete slab was poured on top to create a solid platform. For aesthetic appeal, students are using stonework to cover the sides of the platform.
Students laid a block pedestal to create a new fish pond that is smaller and more manageable that the original one.
An existing building, which resembles a gristmill with an actual working wheel, also has been restored.
“We’ve already fired up the wheel, and it works, with water coming down the trough like it would in a real gristmill. It’s so relaxing to listen to the water running,” said Blevins, who has ideas for more additions at the site as time goes on.
When Blevins returns to help the students next school year, the continual project will be waiting on the masonry students to pick up where they left off. They will add concrete steps and install handicapped-accessible ramps that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Our ultimate plan,” said Blevins, “is building a gazebo above the gristmill that can serve as a second outdoor classroom. That will have to be next year.”
A memory garden on a hillside behind the outdoor classroom will recognize students and teachers at the school who have died in recent years.
In the meantime, the building trades students will further the project by adding tables and chairs for outside instruction and an outdoor grilling area to reward students for exceptional performance.
“If funds are available, we would like to have the area ready for use during this school year,” Fritz said.
As the project begins to take shape, more people at the school are taking interest in the progress of the outdoor classroom.
“The more we do, the more kids are excited to get in on the action,” said Blevins.
The building trades students were encouraged to scratch their initials and class years in concrete at the outdoor classroom before it hardened.
“We stressed to the students that this construction is here to stay. It’s permanent. When their own children come to school here one day, they can show them where their initials are left,” said Blevins.
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com.