Completed Renovations a Cause to Celebrate

bird research picsTop left: Ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrates project completion.
Top right: David Moore, District executive director, and Bob Martinez, former governor, discuss Nature’s Classroom.
Bottom: Bill Hoffman, HEF president, thanks Hugh Gramling, Governing Board member.

As Nature’s Classroom prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary, representatives from the District, the Hillsborough Education Foundation (HEF) and the Hillsborough County School Board recently rededicated the facility.

The February rededication marked the completion of the final phase of renovations, which involved relocating and building new animal enclosures. The renovations began in 2000 and were completed in November 2008 with the help of the District and many other public and private partners.

In addition to the new animal enclosures, the renovations and additions include a new environmental education center, an interpretive center, a new welcome center and boardwalk, aviary and animal habitats, a boat dock, 11 outdoor classrooms, three river shelters, a restroom facility and sidewalks adjoining the educational areas. New fencing and roads were constructed, the pavilions have also been refurbished and all power lines have been moved underground.

The school board began operating Nature’s Classroom on a tract of land along the Hillsborough River in 1968. The following year the District acquired the land Nature’s Classroom was located on as part of the Lower Hillsborough Flood Detention project. At that time, the District also entered into a partnership agreement with the school board to continue Nature’s Classroom and expanded it to 365 acres.

“So many communities would love to have the opportunity to celebrate the environment, but they can’t because it is lost,” said MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent.

When budget cuts in 1995 threatened to close the center, HEF stepped up to continue the program and renovate the facilities. Former Gov. Bob Martinez and community activist Amy Shimberg co-chaired the committee that led the capital campaign for renovations.

“This program has been very gratifying,” said Martinez. “My wife and I both attended and taught in Hillsborough County schools. We’ve had a long relationship with the school district.”

As a result of the campaign, many public and private partners contributed more than $3 million to the renovations and additions at the site. In addition, the District’s contributions of more than $1 million to these efforts provided the foundation with the necessary funding to complete the project.

“It has been a pleasure to be involved in the transformation of Nature’s Classroom,” said Colleen Kruk, senior land use specialist and District project manager.

Since 1994, the District annually budgets $40,000 for water resources education programs at Nature’s Classroom. This funding helps pay for classroom grant programs, additional elementary and high school environmental programs for students, part-time teacher salaries, workshops, curriculum development and program coordination.

“I can’t think of a better tool than to take students out here to appreciate the water resources and natural systems,” said David Moore, District executive director. “Education is the key to our goal of maintaining long-term sustainable water supplies.”

deer at Nature's classroom

Moore also remarked about how the Nature’s Classroom concept has served as a seed to communities throughout the District. In the past few years, five similar environmental education centers have been built in nearby counties.

While the facility is primarily open to Hillsborough’s public schools, homeschool groups and private schools can reserve time at Nature’s Classroom during the week Hillsborough County students are taking the FCAT. Summer camps are also held at the facility.

In honor of the facility’s 40th anniversary, Nature’s Classroom will host an open house and nature festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on April 18–19. For information about Nature’s Classroom, call (813) 987-6969 or visit