Roanoke's Outdoor Education Center Sign of Community Innovation, Vision
“My main goal as an educator is to help try to provide opportunities for these kids, like the ones that were provided to me. It’s so important to give these kids a chance. Once you do that, you really start to see what these kids have to offer,” says Handley High School principal Gregory Foster.
One of the most innovative avenues through which Roanoke tries to provide these opportunities is Handley High School’s Outdoor Education Center, an outdoor learning facility that boasts fruit and vegetable patches, a chicken coop, fish hatcheries, bee-keeping facilities, and more. Along with community projects like the theater and bank building restorations, the OEC shows Roanoke is a town that is willing to think outside the box and implement original ideas in order to position itself on the cutting-edge. Citizens of Roanoke are very proud of the Outdoor Education Center, and rightfully so.
Despite the incredible scale of the OEC today, Foster admits that the center had humble beginnings. “We had initially just talked about building some greenhouses because the science and agriculture teachers wanted some, and we were just looking for a place to put them. One day, the Student Resource Officer and I were riding around, looking for a place to put prom decorations. We found a spot of land, and we just started talking and brainstorming,” said Foster.
Their ideas quickly expanded beyond simple greenhouses. “From there, our vision just exploded. Once we had the land, we started dreaming from there, talking about honeybees, fish, chickens. We got the superintendent and other teachers onboard. Then we formed a committee, wrote a grant, and partnered with the Extension office, and that’s when everything just started coming together,” he said.
Foster explained that from the beginning they wanted the center to be a place where students could work and learn about agriculture and its importance in the area. As such, the school was able to further innovate and have these experiences count towards students’ course requirements.
“At the OEC, students are given the opportunity to go throughout the year and earn credits. We have requested a waiver so they can count their work as math and science classes— it involves a lot of both. They’re able to experience it as a course and learn about the applied side of these different subjects,” said Foster.
As with most successful community projects, Foster says the Outdoor Education Center was a group effort. “Everybody had an expertise in something— that’s how we ended up with such a wide variety in the center. We had wide expertise and vision, and I think that wealth of expertise shows,” he said.
Though he says there have been many memorable experiences with the OEC, his personal favorite memories were the student presentations about the center at the school’s Student Showcase in the spring. At the showcase, Handley High students were given the chance to present student projects and school happenings to visitors and citizens of Roanoke.
“When we had our student showcase, some students were so enthusiastic— just seeing their faces and how excited they were to explain what they’d learned to visitors and the community, that was definitely the most gratifying experience,” Foster said.
In terms of future plans for the OEC, Foster said there aren’t any plans in the works to physically expand the facility or add different agricultural or animal divisions to the center. Rather, he said he’d like to develop the business side of the OEC so that the sale of its products can totally fund the center. The center has already sold fish, eggs, and vegetables and has processed small amounts of honey, but they’d like to do even more.
“The plan as of now is to create a self-sustaining operation. That entails students not only knowing how to work, but understanding the business side. We’d love to see profits go back into the OEC. We want to use what we’re growing to maintain the incredible facility we have here. Additionally, I’d like to see some of that money go toward agricultural fieldtrips to go see orchards, fish hatcheries, beekeeping facilities. I’d like the students to come to understand the financial side of sustaining a business and managing expenses,” he said.
As for the future of Roanoke and the Outdoor Education Center, Foster says he sees the OEC as a sign of the community’s future. “I think that Roanoke is a community that has a lot to offer. We have so much to offer with our schools and our location on [Highway] 431. I think, with things like the OEC, we’re showing the kind of community we want to be and what we’re working toward.”