SOUTH PORTLAND — Late last Friday morning, the sounds of hammers and drills rose softly from a soggy piece of land behind a playground on Wescott Road.
The sounds represented the construction of a bog walk, the final phase of an outdoor learning area at Skillin Elementary School that has been five years in the making.
“It’s a great project,” said Conrad Cyr, a carpenter volunteering his time on the project. “This will get (students) out of the classroom so they can enjoy nature.”
When finished, the work will provide elementary students with a bridge to enjoy and learn from an on-site wetland.
That bridge also symbolizes an effort by students who have either dropped out of school or are on criminal probation to re-enter the educational system and earn their Graduate Equivalency Diploma while gaining valuable workplace skills.
On Friday, Cyr was helping a handful of students from LearningWorks, a Portland nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.
Students, whose ages range from 16-24, were sloshing around the small bog in an effort to assemble pieces of the bog walk they put together off-site.
Dave Connor is a vocational teacher for Youth Build Alternatives, the LearningWorks program that allows students to earn a GED while also learning a trade.
Connor said there are about 40 students who rotate through the four-week program, which also uses student labor to renovate rental properties owned by the nonprofit group.
“It’s unique,” Connor said of the YBA program, which unlike Portland Adult Education, is free. “This is a free opportunity. And whether kids take advantage of it or not is their decision.”
The 160-foot bog walk will also contain three observation decks for students to study the plant and wildlife in the bog, which also has a small walking trail around the edge.
The bog walk is the remaining piece of the project that also includes an outdoor classroom with granite benches and a butterfly garden containing 40 types of trees and shrubs.
South Portland student Matt Tracy on Friday was busy carry planks of wood from a nearby van to what will eventually become one of the observation decks. In between trips, Tracy gave his supervisors a hard time about a pair of boots they loaned him.
“They have holes in them,” Tracy said.
During a break, Tracy said the YBA program allows him to help children and advance his skills in carpentry, a trade he may pursue later in life.
“They need this environment for the plants they’re putting down,” the 17-year-old said. “This is helping me and strengthening my skills.”
“Wow, it’s starting to look like a boardwalk,” first-grade teacher Anne Cyr, who is overseeing the outdoor learning center project, said when she checked the progress being made.
Cyr, who is married to Conrad, said the area has been and will continue to be a great learning resource for students, who often meet there with their book buddies when the weather is nice.
“It’s a perfect setting,” she said.
Meanwhile, elementary school students have been involved in creating the area from the beginning, Cyr said, noting that the plants and shrubs were chosen and planted by students in the butterfly garden and outdoor classroom.
“This gives them the opportunity to learn to not be afraid to get their hands dirty,” she said.
Principal Lucretia Bagley said she is grateful for LearningWorks’ contribution to what she said was a “marvelous” project, which has been funded through a combination of grants and donations.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do it” without them, she said.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland students Josue Ntimugura, 20, left, and Lee Reh, 20, right, fasten prefabricated portions of a bog walk being installed at South Portland’s Skillin Elementary School on Friday, Nov. 12.
The bog walk is installed by LearningWorks students at South Portland’s Skillin Elementary School.