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MA - Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School

Alexandria, VA

A school's outdoor classroom sparks learning and community-minded thinking 

Planting and tending a garden is a natural choice for a school that's dedicated to out-of-the-box, out-of-the-usual learning. Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School knew what it was doing when it chose gardening as part of their curriculum.

Students at Hollin are part of "a respectful, safe, and nurturing learning environment," says Principal Jon Gates. The school, which offers Kindergarten through sixth grade classes, broadens the scope of the typical school curriculum with innovative programs and daily emphasis on a child's whole well-being. Hollin fosters not only academic acuity but social and cooperative skills as well. "Students at Hollin Meadows expressed more confidence and enjoyment of math and science than students in neighboring schools in a recent independent survey," says Jason Pittman, Hollin science teacher and garden coordinator.

Hollin used grant money to further development of five outdoor campuses and garden areas—which works out to 14,000 square feet of total space. Projects included community gardens and a large, brand-new outdoor classroom. It encompasses "a Virginia Native Habitat, a Form & Texture Garden, a Literary Garden, and an array of vegetable and flower beds," says Jason.  During lessons and through gardening projects students work together, getting their hands dirty weeding, watering, and harvesting. The Outdoor Education Coordinator guides children through both analytical and cooperative aspects of growing, from planting to harvesting.

"Students use the gardens and classroom spaces as a part of regular instruction on a weekly basis," says Jason.

One of the community-garden achievements Hollin can be proud of includes space for low-income families to grow their own produce—a satisfying project for both the school and the families. Another is an award-winning Android application that allows users to take a virtual tour of the gardens. The app was created by a student, and is a remarkable example of combining low-tech (gardening) with high-tech (electronics). And produce grown by Hollin students was featured in their Thanksgiving community feast—over 1000 heads of lettuce were enjoyed.

The time spent outdoors working and exploring what goes on in the gardens is paying off in bigger ways. "Hollin Meadows is achieving high scores on standardized tests, not by teaching to the test, but through authentic learning in our school's outdoor classrooms and gardens," says Jason.

"Science teacher Jason Pittman helped develop and construct all of our outdoor resources and gardens as well as created our nationally award winning science focus program," says the garden team. "Along with Outdoor Education Coordinators Jen Finnegan and Shawn Akard, the science focus team has created an outdoor education program that is a model for inquiry science. Thousands of teachers have traveled to Hollin Meadows to attend workshops, tours, or even the AHS National Children's Gardening Symposium that was held here is 2012 to learn from these three outdoor education gurus."

The community gardens and outdoor classroom provide a unique way for Hollin students to learn and to pay it forward. "We really build the power of community, "says Assistant Principal Donna Beaver-Young.