Upper St. Clair property to mark 10 years of teaching about the outdoors

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

As visitors hiked at The Outdoor Classroom, deer waded across Chartiers Creek. Toads hopped along the stony shore, and a garter snake slithered across the trail.

The Outdoor Classroom in the 475-acre Boyce Mayview Park in Upper St. Clair will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, and officials are planning how to mark the occasion.

“Our mission is to connect people with the natural world, and we'll do that however we can,” said Jessica Kester, program manager.

The Outdoor Classroom occupies the old Mayview Farm, which provided food for the former Mayview State Hospital from the early 1900s until the 1980s.

The property features about 12 miles of trails, an outdoor laboratory made from reclaimed barn timbers and two modular offices. Outside the offices are four gardens of native sunflowers, New York ironweed and tall blazing star.

“When the kids are here and they see one plant with moths and bees, it illustrates the life cycle in front of them,” said John Masilunas, program administrator.

He has observed airborne battles between bluebirds and tree swallows over the right to nest in a box in the meadow. The birds dive-bombed each other, he said.

A nonprofit group, The Outdoor Classroom had a budget of about $185,000 in 2012. Of that, 27 percent came from the municipality, 25 percent from paid programming and the rest from foundations, corporations and individuals.

The classroom has two full-time employees, one part-time and other people who work seasonally. The Outdoor Classroom served about 13,209 people last year, up nearly 14 percent from 2011.

“I've seen more than 200 species (of birds) at The Outdoor Classroom. I've seen more species there than any other place in the county,” said David Wilton, a birder and assistant scoutmaster of Troop 228 in Bethel Park. In 2007, he said, he recorded bird activity at the park every day from sunrise to sundown.

Wilton, 55, of Scott, attributes the plethora of species to the variety of habitat structures and the site's location in a migration corridor. He has seen a 5-foot-tall sandhill crane, a snowy egret and little blue heron at various times.

Peters residents Gwen and Mark Vizza and their sons Caleb, 5, and Landon, 2, made their second trip Saturday to The Outdoor Classroom. They went with Caleb's best friend and his parents.

The families collected firewood, roasted marshmallows for s'mores, sang songs and listened to funny campfire stories.

“It was an hour that was perfect for the kids,” said Gwen Vizza, 34. “It was at sunset. It was great to watch the kids with their flashlight.”

Pam Dillie teaches third grade at Baker Elementary School in Upper St. Clair and is a science curriculum leader. She said all children in the district in kindergarten through the fourth grade visit The Outdoor Classroom once a year. Its curriculum matches the school district's, as students learn lessons about plants and trees, birds, ecology and habitats.

“It gives the kids a chance to go outside and play,” she said.

The Outdoor Classroom takes its programs into schools for students who cannot come to it.

Audrey Aubrecht, a retired teacher from the South Allegheny School District, teaches an after-school environmental education program for about 40 South Allegheny students in grades two through six.

Kester comes in to the school about three times a year and teaches lessons on an herb garden, wildlife conservation and a pellet lab. Children examine owl pellets, remains of creatures an owl ate and later coughed up.

“The kids like her,” Aubrecht said of Kester. “She always teaches us something new,”

Kerry Turner, 38, of Upper St. Clair, uses the site to go geocaching, a sort of high-tech scavenger hunt, with her family. In addition, her children have gone there on school field trips and for Scouting.

“They really tailor the program to whatever the needs are of the audience,” she said.

In the corner of a temporary office of The Outdoor Classroom is a 2004 model of what it was supposed to look like with a green roof, a system for recycling wastewater, raised gardens and a catering kitchen. But charitable dollars dried up during the recession, and the center never was built.

Originally estimated to cost $9 million, the center probably would cost more than $10 million now, Kester said.

“To find funds for this on our 10th anniversary would be an extremely welcome birthday present,” she said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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