Teachers Candy St. Onge, left, and Cathy Russell cut the ribbon to officially open the outdoor classroom at Sundridge Centennial Public School.Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 06, 2022 at 20:20

By Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A Sundridge Centennial Public School project that first saw the light of day five years ago is now a reality thanks to two teachers at the school.

Candy St. Onge and Cathy Russell came up with the idea of an outdoor classroom and got a grant from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund to kick-start the project.

The onset of the pandemic created challenges and delays for both teachers but the project kept moving forward thanks to the dedicated staff at the school.

Russell said one of those dedicated individuals was school principal Jill Cooper.

“Jill brought up the project at nearly every staff meeting and parent council meeting to gather donations and volunteers,” Russell said.

Russell adds Cooper kept a positive attitude and in an effort to help keep overall construction costs down, “delivered construction materials in her own horse trailer.”

The outdoor classroom will help connect students at the school to the land and traditional teachings.

Cooper says all age groups including the community partners will be able to use the classroom as a safe space as they enjoy the surrounding environment.

Cooper adds the classroom is designed to teach students all subjects “from mathematics and science to literacy.”

“We hope to add ‘wonder wagons’ full of discovery tools like microscopes, magnifying glasses, bug jars and more,” Cooper said.

A significant role Cooper played was connecting Russell and St. Onge to experts at the Near North District School Board and Indigenous officials with education and experiential knowledge to ensure the outdoor classroom would be meaningful and create ongoing learning opportunities for students, staff and community partners.

The list of community partners is made up of 17 area businesses and organizations including many in the construction-related field like Phoenix Building Components, Sundridge Home Hardware, McLaren Bros. Construction, North Bay Home Depot, EBL Groundworks, Custom Home Designs, Jeremy Bean Designs and South River Planing Mill.

Other key partners include Indigenous Education Partnership, the Arborist Alliance, the Sundridge Lions Club, Wilson Transportation, Almaguin Highlands Community Living, the school board plus Almaguin Highlands Secondary School, the Village of Sundridge and the Retired Teachers of Ontario.

The outdoor classroom “building” started off as a pole structure supporting a sailcloth that protected the students from the weather to the eventual permanent structure that has trusses and a shingled roof.

A prominent feature of the outdoor classroom is its ceiling.

Teacher Christine Charette and a number of students painted an elaborate ceiling that is set against a blue background that represents water which is life and the Seven Grandfather Teachings which are Anishinaabe guiding principles that help people live a good life in peace and without conflict.

The seven teachings are truth, love, respect, wisdom, courage, humility and bravery.

The teachings are represented by seven animal paintings and make up the central focus of the ceiling.

Around the seven animals are 300 fish swimming that the Centennial students and teachers
painted using a Metis dot style art form.

Charette herself has experience working as a Metis artist on community art projects.

Cooper says the different colours the students and teachers chose for the fish represent someone special in their lives or a special place in nature so that each fish is a symbol of what they love.

Cooper adds the “meaning and intention behind the (ceiling) painting is to honour nature, to foster a caring culture between all people and to further our path toward Truth and Reconciliation.”

The outdoor classroom was officially unveiled during a ceremony where Rodney Stanger of the Timiskaming First Nation sang a traditional song to honour the completed work and for people to continue their development to understand the world through various perspectives.

Stanger demonstrated Indigenous culture during the opening ceremony and encouraged the students to continue connecting with nature.

Students from the school, their parents, community members and Centennial staff all took part in the opening ceremony before the school year ended.

This item reprinted with permission from The Nugget, North Bay, Ontario