WEST PARIS – The Agnes Gray Elementary School unveiled its year-long vision  to connect students to nature during an open house in the school’s backyard last week.

Principal Beth Clarke welcomes scores of parents and students and their families to the school on the evening of May 23 to see the vision that came to fruition. The school’s new outdoor classroom, Buddy Bench, orchard and raised beds have transformed the school’s backyard into a learning center for nature.

In her welcoming remarks, Clarke said, “Last year, the staff of the West Paris school community had a vision for our students to become more connected to nature, to each other, and with the world.  From that vision, many hopes and dreams have been realized.”

They include the outdoor classroom, which she called a gathering place for teachers and students to integrate nature into learning. “Students and teachers alike may find respite in the peaceful environment to help regain balance and find their center during the school day,” she said.

The 16-by 20-foot, timber-framed structure serves about 100 students as part of the Outdoor Classroom Initiative, a five-year project supported by Agnes Gray staff, including third-grade teacher Betsey Cooper and PTO members. The project includes hands-on teaching, an active, socially healthy recess program,  school gardens and a trail system accessed directly behind the school.

The building was constructed by volunteers including Gould Academy’s Reachout community service organization in Bethel, which constructed the timber frame, and students from  Oxford Hills Technical School Building Trades program, plus many others who volunteered time, labor and materials to the project.


The celebration also lauded the efforts to establish a school orchard.

Earlier this month, students planted 12 fruit trees to establish an orchard of apple, peach, pear and plum trees. The school was one of nine Maine schools that received educational orchards with the support from the nonprofit program, ReTreeUS.

“One of our many dreams is to encourage our students to make healthy choices and be stewards of the earth. To that end, as a school we have planted twelve fruit trees and have built raised beds with the help of volunteers from the Alan Day Garden,” Clarke told those gathered at the open house.

Another special event was the dedication of the school’s new Buddy Bench, donated by the family of Bill Koch, a former teacher and principal at Agnes Gray School.

“Mr. Koch was a mentor to many and a friend to all. It is in the spirit of his kindness and friendship to others that we gratefully dedicate our Buddy Bench in memory of him,” she said.

Clarke said the Buddy Bench is “a simple idea to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship on the playground. It helps spread the message of inclusion and kindness by letting students know when a peer would like to be included. If students see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench, they can sit with them or even invite them to play.”

The evening events also included tours of the Outdoor Classroom, planting in the school’s raised beds, browsing nature books on a beach blanket, exploring the fruit trees along with an informational sessions in the orchard and Yogurt smoothie making with a human powered bicycle blender.

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