Raleigh Magnet School takes learning outdoors and back to nature
Carolina Parent. Staff. November 11, 2020.

“… A reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit and survival,” says, Richard Louv, author of several books on the necessary relationship between growing children and nature. Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary (or MECME, as staff and students affectionately call their school) has taken this wisdom to heart.

After receiving a 2017 federal grant to develop this new Environmental Connections program,  the school’s faculty and families have created amazing educational opportunities for students—both in the classrooms and on their beautiful campus. Nestled in a corner just east of Falls of Neuse and Millbrook Roads, this jewel of a school now features nine outdoor areas that nurture student learning in grades K-5.

“In a world of technology, learning outdoors is so important for a child’s wellbeing,” says Tommy Groves, a MECME third grade parent. “I love that we found a school that understands how learning outdoors increases student interest and supports learning with real life experiences. Being outdoors is important to us as a family and finding a school with similar beliefs has been so rewarding.”

MECME’s outdoor classrooms engage students in a wide variety of learning.

The largest outdoor classroom on campus features a pathway that winds its way past indigenous North Carolina plants and grasses and a shaded pavilion where students can watch nature at work. This area enables students to observe the seasons pass in the life cycles of the Black-Eyed Susan flowers, Beautyberry shrubs, and meadow grasses—a true pollinator garden. As these plants attract all manner of butterflies, moths, and birds, the life cycles of these creatures are also on display for experiential learning.

Students at MECME do more than just observe. Each grade level takes part in transplanting herb and vegetable seedlings into the plant boxes that line the outdoor pavilion. As the seedlings grow, students learn about the roles of sunlight, water, and weeding for plant health and development. Most excitingly, they get to participate in the harvest of these plants—an edible garden at work!

Through a partnership with the Interfaith Food Shuttle and FoodCorps, students learn not only about growing food, but also the ways that healthy food contributes to a strong body and mind.

“My daughter has become more environmentally conscious and interested in how things work through her work in the MECME gardens,” Jenny Reynolds, a fifth-grade parent explains.

“Her social and emotional development has excelled since attending MECME. I credit it to the hands-on learning she is getting.  The staff is extremely encouraging and empathetic to each child’s different learning abilities. MECME has been a blessing for our family.”

Other exciting outdoor areas on the MECME campus include:
  • A small pond where students can learn about water plants and amphibians
  • A birding area that is home to several different species
  • A micro-forest where students have hands-on opportunities to engage in unique tree identification opportunities, observe wildlife (in person and through the use of critter cameras), and even use it as inspiration for art and poetry.

MECME also has a resident beekeeper who maintains an indoor observation hive located in the school’s Media Center. After applying for and receiving a grant to purchase this hive, Magnet Coordinator Randi Jones got her beekeeping certificate.

Now, she is able to properly care for the hive and work with students to help them learn more about bees and their contribution to our environment.  She demonstrates the sort of dedication to student learning that educators at MECME practice on a daily basis. 

Students can dive deeper into this topic, or others, when they sign up for one of the school’s elective classes, which MECME refers to as Expedition classes.  Students get to choose a different Expedition class each quarter, and parents and students alike love how teachers incorporate hands-on, environmental learning with curricular learning standards.

Expeditions such as Give Bees a Chance, Take a Hike, or Brilliant Bugs, are a way for MECME students to connect to Environmental Science with choice in mind. Students do more in-depth learning about a topic they are already interested in or one that has recently piqued their interest.

MECME Expeditions encourage students’ growing minds to think, work, and communicate like botanists, geologists, chemists, entomologists, engineers, and more.

By helping students recognize their personal connection to the environment, they become environmentally-minded stewards of the Earth.

The school’s Instructional Facilitator, Carey Heale, says she is looking forward to spring 2021 when students will do even more. This spring, MECME second graders will…
  1. First identify and label the flowers in the garden as well as the pollinators that need and use these plants to help the ecosystem thrive.
  2. Students will collaborate to create public service announcement videos about the effects that insecticides have on gardens and pollinators.
  3. The videos will be used to teach the school community about the value and importance of caring for the environment.

Another great learning opportunity that MECME provides ALL of its students is an Environmental Inquiry (E-Inquiry) class offered twice a week.

“E-Inquiry is a space where we join forces and collaborate to solve a problem. Students in this class take control of their learning as they explore real-life issues and come up with creative solutions,” explains Natalie Avilez, one of the school’s E-Inquiry teachers.

For example, last spring, MECME first-graders began the initial stages of developing their own bird sanctuary. Students used E-Inquiry to research the environmental elements that attract birds. Then, they wrote letters to community members and made a presentation to the principal asking for help to purchase items…

And the MECME student-designed birding area was born.

Hands-on opportunities for learning about the environment abound in both the indoor and outdoor classrooms at Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School. James Aldridge, the proud principal of MECE says, “Our campus is absolutely beautiful, and the flexible outdoor learning spaces encourage and nurture our students’ appreciation of and connection to their environment. Our teachers support the whole child and have shown remarkable flexibility and creativity in response to the unique challenges of this school year. More than ever, we must prepare students to engage in a world that is increasingly connected, and that’s what MECME is all about.”

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