Now in its 14th year, the Explorations Program at Irvington High School teaches life skills to young men and women with cognitive disabilities, highlighting a different aspect of learning each day. Most of the teens and young adults, ages, 14 to 21, are referred from Irvington Middle School (which later implemented a similar program) and surrounding school districts.
“This is a big day in the history of our school district,” exclaimed Superintendent, Dr. Chris Clouet, as he began the ribbon-cutting event that opened the Peabody Preserve Outdoor Classroom (PPOC) on October 22. The 40-acre site is now an innovative “classroom without walls,” thanks to the efforts of three energetic parents: Tracey Brown, Katie Scully and Sonia Cawley. With the enthusiastic support of Clouet and the Board of Education, many teachers, administrators, environmentalists and donors, and in partnership with Teatown and Scenic Hudson, the acreage (aside from the two sports fields) has been transformed into a preserve with a new trail system accessing many points of interest and opportunities for classroom study out-of doors.
Long ago, this property was the site of the turn-of-the-century Etruscan Brick Factory. The building is now in ruins, surrounded by a verdant deciduous forest, freshwater and saltwater tidal wetlands, populated by a wide variety of flora and fauna, with views of the Hudson River.
“Ever since 2011,” Brown explained, “debates occurred about what to do with the entire Board of Education-owned property. It needed a steward, a group of people who love, it, know it and can speak on its behalf. And, the inspiration came to us that students should be that steward.” Brown expressed the need for students to get outdoors, into someplace wild, silent and away from technology. “So many students had not been in the woods before; once they get into the forest, they find it magical, transformative,” she added.
Although the property was initially unavailable, science research teacher, Janet Longo-Abinanti, said, “Build it and they will come.” Scully took on the challenge. She organized the enthusiastic outpouring of community volunteers who helped clear trails with the support of Cutting Edge, a local landscape company. Scenic Hudson created maps and land use strategies; Teatown marked the trail system, led by trail expert Leigh Draper.
A generous donation from the late Kathryn W. Davis jump-started the project. And, now students come with their art, science, and physical education teachers, integrating life science, landscape drawing and exercise. The Jacob Burns Center will help set up “critter cameras” to monitor animal activity. Robert Welsch, owner of Westover Landscape, worked with students to plant 500 daffodil bulbs before the proceedings. And Teatown donated a repurposed bridge for walkers to enter the preserve.
Clouet described another exciting initiative: a digital field guide for the preserve created in partnership with the Jacob Burns Film Center. “Students will create a field guide of this wonderful space. Kids have a natural tendency to name their world, and now they will be able to do so in Spanish and English. Why outdoor learning?” he asked. “Nature shifts as do our brains when we learn. With this big project as part of our core study, students learn to think flexibly along with nature. Big things can happen. The time has come to pay attention to nature.”
In a rousing speech, State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins announced,” I am here to celebrate PPOC: PP means “people power” because that’s what’s happened here. People came together to ‘partner power.’ Your legacy, students, is to improve the environment. Education is not a four-walled experience.”
“We didn’t inherit the land from our ancestors,” Assemblyman Tom Abinanti declared, quoting environmental activist Wendell Berry, “we borrowed it from our children. And, now future leaders from our schools will have the knowledge to understand how our environment works.”
Kevin Carter, Teatown’s Executive Director, stressed broadening Teatown’s “mission to inspire our communities to lifelong environmental stewardship; it takes collaboration: talk, listen, collaborate and build. This is just the beginning of this great place.”
Introduced as “a great scientist,” 12th grader Javiera Morales and silver medal winner at a recent national International Sustainable World Energy and Environment Project conference, described her thesis on invasive species thriving in fragmented areas, and the country’s $40 billion spent on trying to eradicate them. Eighth-grader Max Cover urged his fellow students to explore in a different way; ”the smallest thing, like a slipstream can take up your whole afternoon,” he said. And ninth–grader Jayne Knight delighted in nature as everyone’s “24-hour classroom where we get to touch, hear, smell and taste, creating a better sense of awareness, connecting us to our environment.”
A dramatic ending completed this energetic ceremony, as the Headless Horseman appeared on the ridge nearby and raced down to the ribbon-cutting, his black steed prancing and rearing in a seasonal celebration of this nexus of outdoor education and land stewardship. And, a grateful community cheered.
For PPOC information visit: https://sites.google.com/site/peabodypreserve/ To view the ribbon cutting, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcuL6hrUDPg&feature=youtu.be