When Ryland Ross first discussed his Eagle Scout project with Eleanor Rush Intermediate School Principal Kerry DiSimone, it certainly was not with a pandemic in mind. Regardless, the idea of building an outdoor classroom at the back of the school building turned out to be a rather serendipitous decision.
“It just so happens it worked out for this time,” Ross said.
The 16-year-old rising junior at Cinnaminson High School first approached the principal of his alma mater last October, hoping he could offer a project to the school that would help him earn his Eagle Scout rank, the highest in the Boys Scouts. That project capped a Scouting career that started in first grade.
“He came with some really great ideas,” DiSimone said.
Although last year was her first as Rush principal, DiSimone is going into her 25th year with the district and has known Ross since he entered school. Seeing him come to her as a sophomore pursuing his Eagle Scout rank, in addition to wanting to help her school in the process, was exciting.
“After some discussion, we decided on the outdoor classroom. I showed him a good spot where it could go, and he ran with it,” DiSimone explained. “I honestly didn’t really have to do much until he was ready to begin the actual set-up.”
As a student at Rush, Ross remembered when lessons would bring classes outdoors, students congregating in the grass around the teacher. The opportunity to build an actual outdoor classroom dedicated to learning was appealing.
“It’s an outdoor space for the kids to get out in the fresh air,” he explained, “but it offers all the same teaching opportunities.”
After some discussion with Keith Zimecki, who is with school district maintenance, it was decided a concrete patio would be installed for the outdoor classroom, making it easier to maintain. DiSimone said the district picked up the tab for the concrete, so no money had to be pulled from the Rush or maintenance budgets.
With the patio ready, on the morning of Aug. 11, Ross and volunteers – fellow Troop 70 Scouts, friends and family – were hard at work readying the space for outdoor learning come September. They built bench seating that doubles as desks, providing enough space for up to 30 students. A locked storage box will be filled with individual white boards, markers and erasers, and teachers will also be able to utilize a large, stationary 5-by-6-foot whiteboard. A 20-by-16-foot sun shade will also be installed over the space with help from school maintenance.
Even though the project was slated for the spring and pushed back because of the COVID-19 quarantine, things are still on track to finish before the first day of school next month.
Since the planned fundraisers were also canceled due to COVID-19, funding for the project came primarily through donations, with word spreading through the community and his troop via Facebook and other means. Cinnaminson High School teacher Marita Barth, who advises the CHS and Rush ecology clubs, also donated six benches through the clubs.
Finishing the classroom does not make Ross an Eagle Scout. The next step is to document the project and write a report, which will then be submitted to the Boy Scouts of America for a board of review. From there, it is determined if Ross will achieve the highest rank in scouting.
“It feels good after 10-plus years of working toward it,” Ross said of getting one step closer to earning his Eagle.
While his scouting days started in early elementary school, there was a time around age 13 when Ross considered quitting. Drawn to the organization through the camping trips and outdoor activities, he ultimately decided to stick it out, and he’s glad he did, grateful now for the leadership opportunities Scouting has given him.
Ross put those leadership skills to the test last week, checking in and helping where needed as his outdoor classroom was brought to life. The space will be invaluable this coming school year, as Rush students return to smaller class sizes and hybrid schedules to accommodate COVID safety parameters.
“When we started talking about reopening plans, immediately we were talking about having outdoor classroom spaces. I was so proud and happy to say we actually will have this really functional, beautiful outdoor classroom space,” DiSimone said.
Teachers who want to use the space will be able to sign up for time slots on a Google calendar. The area will be cleaned between each use.
“We’re very excited to have this as an option coming back into school this year,” DiSimone added.
“The kids are going to absolutely love the space.”