McIntosh County Academy teacher Carolyn DeLoach recently won a grant to build an outdoor classroom at the school.

Carolyn DeLoach sees daily in her classroom at McIntosh County Academy what researchers are reporting across the country — declining academic performances among students along with spikes in behavioral problems and anxiety disorders.

DeLoach, a science teacher at MCA, discovered one solution to these growing concerns, though. To help students focus and enjoy learning, she simply moved her classroom outside.

“Students are suffering from nature deficit,” DeLoach said. “And the experts, the authorities, in psychology and medical science and all of that, are saying we’ve got to bring nature back into the classroom. And to do that, you put the classroom in nature.”

So DeLoach, through brainstorming with some of her students, drafted a grant application for the Georgia Foundation for Public Education’s Rural Education Fund, which provides money to rural schools in counties with 35,000 or fewer residents.

She termed her idea the “Outdoor Discovery Classroom.”

“The Outdoor Discovery Classroom will provide real-world learning experiences at McIntosh County Academy that will extend the learning environment outdoors and make learning fun,” DeLoach wrote in the grant application. “It will offer hands-on opportunities to enhance cognitive and mental coping skills for the student.”

The classroom will feature pond management, aquatic studies, interactive hiking trails, wetland observation, a timber forest ecosystem, an alternative energy power station, a remote weather station and more, according to the proposal.

DeLoach’s innovative idea caught the attention of the foundation’s board, which selects which grant applications receive approval. MCA was selected this year as one of 12 grant recipients, an honor that was celebrated last week with a visit from members of the foundation and from State School Superintendent Richard Woods.

The foundation’s funding comes in part through Educator/Support Eduction license plates, which Woods encouraged Georgia’s residents to invest in.

“It’s a great and easy way to become involved,” he said. “As you can see with these grants, they’re very tangible and real for our children. It’s just another way in which we as Georgia come together and support students.”

DeLoach said her idea for an outdoor classroom began to take shape last school year, during an outing onto the school grounds with her environmental science students.

“I saw what it did for them, just that one day,” she said. “And they were relaxed, and they were focused. I got more work out of them than I’ve ever gotten.”

The grant money will be used to purchase and build an open air shelter, solar panels for power and more. The classroom will sit on the edge of a pond next to the school.

“It really is a vision that we all put together, that the students and I put together,” DeLoach said.

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