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Durango School District 9-R to host grand opening for outdoor learning lab

Phase 1 officially complete after the district raised $460,000
Donations for the project came from business sponsorships, private cash donations, in-kind donations and from the City of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

After more than a year of planning and construction, Durango School District 9-R will start unveiling its Seeds of Inspiration Lab.

The celebration, which will take place Sept. 30 from 4-6 p.m. at Riverview Elementary School, will signify the completion of Phase 1 of the project. A ribbon cutting was held June 3 for donors and other parties affiliated with the project, but this event will be open to the public.

The community garden and outdoor learning lab project at Riverview intends to build an education center, a grow dome and a food forest and agricultural lab at the school.

Phase 1 included the planting of the gardens, while the other phases will include building the rest of the infrastructure for the project.

“The completed Phase 1 is a testament to the strength and vibrance of the Four Corners community,” said project director Charlie Love. “The 90 garden beds you’ll see here were built by more than 200 volunteers from the community, using lumber harvested through local wildfire mitigation efforts.”

Phase 1 involved implementing a 700-foot water line from the elementary school to the garden at the west end of the parking lot. It also provided electricity for the garden’s future phases in addition to laying the actual garden beds. The only addition left for Phase 1 is the construction of a tool shed.

Love said the district’s schools are currently scheduling and conducting field trips and events. The garden party will offer visitors a glimpse of Phase 2, which is a 1,400-square-foot grow dome. With fundraising support, the dome will offer a year-round space for outdoor education.

Around $460,000 was raised to build the garden phase. This included business sponsorships, private cash donations, in-kind donations and $25,000 from the City of Durango.

Love said the 42-foot grow dome has already been donated to the project from Growing Spaces, eliminating about a $50,000 value from its expenses.

The project will need to raise an additional $125,000 for the project.

“We're wanting to get people excited for the grow dome. And and that's where our funding fundraising efforts are going now,” Love said.

The grow dome will allow students and the community to raise their gardens year-round.

Love is a former fourth grade science teacher at Riverview Elementary. His new role with the district is Instructional Specialist for Sustainability and Project Manager of SOIL. In the past, he used the Ohana Kuleana Community Garden, which used to be located East 30th Street, in his lesson plans to teach students about sustainability.

However, Ohana Kuleana closed in September 2022 after property owner Bob Lieb decided to use the land to develop a tiny home community.

Lieb told The Durango Herald in September 2022 that property taxes created a dilemma because the land was categorized as vacant land status making its assessed value 29%. This caused Lieb to pay “extremely high” property taxes.

The SOIL lab will also serve as a partial replacement for Ohana Kuleana. In June, the district and community celebrated the opening of 50 community garden beds at Riverview.

However, the district’s primary focus is the hands-on learning opportunities the outdoor learning lab can provide all students in the district

“Our students are already benefiting and they love to learn about the Three Sisters planting, giant pumpkins, sunflower tunnel and their favorite: the pizza garden,” said 9-R superintendent Karen Cheser.

A pizza garden is designed to grow the fresh vegetables and herbs essential to making a delicious pizza, from the tomato sauce down to the toppings.

“There's a lot of value in having hands on lessons and activities. And then being able to tie that to curriculum they may be using in their classroom,” Love said.

Love said that the lab will also offer educational programming for the community at some point, but a timeline has not yet been decided on.

“We're looking forward to creating more career in technical education and vocational pathways,” Love said.


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