Outdoor classrooms have proven to be a crucial resource for Charleston County schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This rethinking of school campuses and their potential for fostering an educational environment has exploded in recent months, as educators come up with creative solutions to ensure students maintain recommended social distancing.
Despite their benefits, these nontraditional learning spaces aren’t always an option for students, as it often takes lots of time, energy and resources to build safe and functional outdoor classrooms.
A new program, spearheaded by Kiawah Island Club & Real Estate, helped one Johns Island school solve its need for more open air learning spaces.
Angel Oak Elementary School is classified as Title 1, meaning it serves a high proportion of students who live in poverty.
The school property had previously featured a greenhouse and several garden beds, but both spaces had long been overrun with weeds and dead plants, making them unsuitable for use.
Over the course of three days in December, a team of employees from Kiawah Island Club and South Street Partners worked together to completely revamp Angel Oak’s campus. The renovations included the construction of a brand new greenhouse, refurbished raised garden beds with a new irrigation system and a new play area for third grade students.
The new play area featured soccer nets and a music wall — a five-foot wall with old pots, pans and PVC piping for students to make noise.
The project also included a brand new outdoor classroom complete with a moveable chalkboard/whiteboard and 25-30 sanded tree stumps for students to sit on as they learn.
Some volunteers also built birdfeeders, benches, and picnic tables, while others painted "kindness rocks," with inspirational, uplifting messages that were placed around the property.
The Angel Oak outdoor project was just one of many facilitated by Kiawah Island Club through a new employee initiative program, known as Kiawah in the Community, designed to engage their employees in volunteer opportunities in an effort to serve Sea Island residents.
Through the new initiative, all of the club's 500 or so employees were divided into seven teams, each one representing one of the neighborhoods on Johns Island. Each team was then tasked with reaching out to their respective neighborhoods to find out what their needs were.
Kiawah Island Club & Real Estate, owned and operated by Kiawah Island master developer South Street Partners, is a private, members-only club exclusive to Kiawah Island property owners located 21 miles south of Charleston. Its amenities include world-class golf courses, beach clubs, restaurants and other sporting facilities.
"We've always been really focused on Johns Island, James Island and the other Sea Islands that surround us, because that's where a lot of our employees live, it’s where their kids go to school," said South Street Partner Chris Randolph.
In the past, there was sometimes a disconnect between Kiawah Island residents or employees and other members of the community who live just beyond the private barrier island, said Scott Dawson, general manager of the Kiawah Island Club.
"I think at the end of the day we kind of realized we're down there at this beautiful island, and we're privileged to be there with a lot of privileged people who live there," Dawson said. "We all drive through these areas ... every single day and there was no connection between the club, and the rest of these communities."
Although the club has hosted various philanthropic events over the past several years, Kiawah in the Community was designed to allow employees more hands-on opportunities to volunteer their time and talents and give back.
More than 150 employees participated in the Angel Oak project, Dawson said. In order to maintain COVID-19 safety guidelines, groups of 25 volunteers worked in shifts until the renovations were completed.
Each volunteer was able to bring their own individual skills to the project, Dawson said.
For example, one of the club’s sous-chefs who has a passion for woodwork helped lead the construction of new picnic tables for the students.
The club’s head of landscaping worked to construct the greenhouse and irrigate the new garden beds.
Artist Kendale Agee, who also works as a bartender, beautified the school’s covered play area by freshening up murals and painting several other new images, including the school mascot, a visual representation of the solar system and popular cartoon characters.
"We’re in a position where we can give back, so we should. That’s something that I believe personally," Agee said. "It’s how you show love. We are a part of this community on the islands, so it is an act of love for me."
All the produce grown in the garden will be used for meals in the cafeteria, for classroom lessons or will be donated to students to take home to their families.
"It's just an awesome cycle, and I think for children to be able to get introduced to that at a time when they're struggling with all these different aspects of their life, I think it's just an amazing thing," Dawson said.
Dawson said he hopes the new employee initiative will be remembered as one of the silver linings during the pandemic.
"Everyone has been beaten up by this thing, everyone's got their own challenges, it's just nice when someone does something nice for you," Dawson said.
Students have loved taking advantage of the outdoor classroom and garden space, said Angel Oak family advocate Waring Jordan.
"With COVID, we’ve spent so much time inside right now, so being able to go outside ... It’s huge," Jordan said. "Being able to get out and get some fresh air, I think that’s a blessing."
Each year the elementary school chooses a specific theme to focus on, Jordan said. This year the theme, "Make your Mark," was based on "The Dot," a picture book by Peter Reynolds that centers around how small actions can have a big impact in the community.
"Having the Kiawah Island Club come out and make their mark here is showing just that investment in our students," Jordan said.
To maintain the new developments at Angel Oak Elementary, Kiawah Island Club & Real Estate employees will visit the school on a monthly basis to check-in on progress, oversee general maintenance and assist in any way they can.
"It’s a gift that keeps on giving," Dawson said.