Left: District staff outside the Welcome Center: Will Miller, land use and protection manager; Colleen Kruk, senior land use specialist; Eric Sutton, Land Resources assistant director; Heidi McCree, Governing Board member; and Lou Kavouras, deputy executive director, accept a plaque honoring the District’s commitment to Nature’s Classroom. Center: Sixth graders from Young Middle School take water samples and examine what they scooped up — in this case, a water bug. Right: Heidi McCree, Governing Board member (left), participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Nature’s Classroom Interpretive Center.
Five school buses rolled by the new Welcome Center at Nature’s Classroom as the Hillsborough Education Foundation prepared to honor the District and two other major financial supporters during ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The buses were full of sixth-grade students ready to spend another hot August day learning about water resources and the environment.
“I remember when this program started with a few portables under the trees,” said Jack Lamb, Hillsborough School Board vice chair. “My children and my grandchildren went here. There is nothing like this.”
Nature’s Classroom is an environmental education center located on the District-owned Lower Hillsborough Flood Detention Area property. Since 1969, more than 328,000 sixth-grade students in Hillsborough County have benefited from annual environmental education field trips to Nature’s Classroom. This year, approximately 14,000 students will experience a three-day, hands-on field study focusing on the hydrology and ecosystem of the Hillsborough River.
In 1998, the Hillsborough Education Foundation began a capital campaign to raise $4 million to expand and renovate the facilities. Many of the Nature’s Classroom facilities were built in 1969 and were in dire need of renovating or replacing. In addition, modifications were needed to meet the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Welcome Center and Interpretive Center were completed with funding from several sources. The District, Bright House Networks and Publix Super Markets Charities were three of the primary donors. The District’s Hillsborough River Basin Board contributed $904,717 for renovations, which can be reimbursed through the state’s Water Management Lands Trust Fund.
“This is a role model for environmental education,” said Heidi McCree, Governing Board member and Hillsborough River Basin Board chair ex officio. “Nature’s Classroom shows us how public and private partnerships can work in environmental education.”
Other newly completed construction includes a new boardwalk, aviary, boat dock, restroom facility and sidewalks adjoining the educational areas. The pavilions have also been refurbished and all power lines have been moved underground. Planned renovations include completing the 5,000-square-foot environmental education center and moving the animal enclosures.
“It was such a rewarding experience to see the improvements and partnerships that will keep Nature’s Classroom a one-of-a-kind experience,” said Eric Sutton, District Land Resources assistant director. “Since I was an instructor (at Nature’s Classroom) ten years ago, I know firsthand the difference it makes. It is so important to teach our children about the value of natural resources; after all, our mission is for future generations.”
In addition to donating the land for Nature’s Classroom and contributing funds for construction, the District budgets $40,000 for water resources education programs at Nature’s Classroom each year. Since 1994, the District has contributed $538,000.
“It is important to have a partner like the District to help us provide this kind of opportunity to teach students about the world around us,” said MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent.