Fauquier Outdoor Lab will get facelift with PATH grant

Fauquier public school officials hope to revamp an environmental education program with a new grant.

The Fauquier Excellence in Education Foundation this month received a $96,500 grant from the PATH Foundation to improve the Fauquier Outdoor Lab's main building and grounds and hire a part-time docent.

The lab, in a former home behind Fauquier High School, offers "students the opportunity to experience nature and study plants and wildlife in their native habitats."

The 17-acre property includes a classroom, woodlands, wetlands, native plants, composting and habitat areas and a pond for aquatic studies.

Effie Fox worked as a paid employee for the Fauquier Outdoor Lab from 1991 until her retirement in 2010.

Students from all Fauquier County schools visited the lab on field trips, but budget cuts and disrepair changed that until a few years ago.

School system Science, Health and Physical Education Coordinator Pam Pulver began managing the lab in 2011.

"When I came on board about five years ago it wasn't being used," Ms. Pulver said.

In 2012, she coordinated with Dominion Power volunteers to refurbish flowerbeds, and a floating dock, build benches, powerwash picnic tables, rebuild footbridges and remulch the walking trail.

Less than a year later, Dominion Power donated $10,000 and volunteered to replace the roof, and the school system brought the house up to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

However, in recent years, most use of the pond and outdoor areas have come from FHS, because of its close proximity.

Approximately 200 FHS students attended programs and classes at the lab in 2014-15.

After the upgrades, elementary and middle school students returned for field trips in 2015.

With the PATH Foundation's grant, Ms. Pulver hopes the Fauquier Outdoor Lab will grow to its full potential.

"What we are going to use this money for is to finish the work already started, upgrade it to make sure it can be used as much as possible," she said.

Fauquier Excellence in Education Foundation board member Melanie Burch discussed the opportunity to reopen the Outdoor Lab with school officials about two years ago.

"I think we started talking about it as early as 2014 . . . It is a fantastic facility that was shut down because of budget restraints, and we talked about how wonderful it would be to open it back up again," Ms. Burch said.

The grant will create an Environmental Studies Academy for students of all ages to experience hands-on learning about nature.

"Honestly it was, 'How can we help out the school system in the best way possible?' " Ms. Burch said. "We have given (the school system) the building blocks . . . with the goal of getting Title 1 students to experience what they have never experienced before."

The first year of the program will focus on elementary students, especially those in Title 1, financially disadvantaged schools. In future years, the program will grow to the middle and high school levels.

Improvements should begin in July. The Fauquier Excellence in Education Foundation will use the grant to:

Install new storm windows to make the building more energy efficient.

Remulch walking trails.

Take down a wall to expand the size of a classroom.

Paint the interior.

Repair one floating dock and three bridges.

Repair and expand the existing deck for a teaching station.

Repair exterior walls.

Purchase a Mitsubishi heater/cooler for one room.

Purchase five, 50-gallon aquariums and repair the floors to support them.

Add a gazebo to create a teaching station.

Purchase 10 new microscopes, five large nets, 10 bamboo fishing poles, water sampling kits, coffee filters, a johnboat, life vests, general office supplies and writing supplies for students.

Hire a part-time docent, with one-year salary. The school system would absorb the salary costs after one year.

"It opens up more opportunities for our kids," Fauquier High School Principal Clarence "Tripp" Burton said. "How can we make learning as real as possible? By going outside to the lab, they are doing it hands-on. We are fortunate enough to have these opportunities in our own backyard."

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