Spelunking in a cave, traipsing through a forest and eating with the fishes. Visitors to Munford Elementary School can do all three before even entering a classroom.
The thematic school includes a lobby designed to look like a cave, a hallway with life-sized tree replicas and a cafeteria with murals of the Talladega National Forest and a 250-gallon aquarium. The hallways are decorated with more than $250,000 in donated interactive displays.
The school sits at the foot of Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s highest point, on a 130-acre campus along with Munford Middle and High schools. While the schools’ interiors are inspired by the outdoors, the school grounds also draw teachers and students outside.
“We’re just trying to encourage kids to get off their laptops and phones and do some stuff outside,” said Johnny Ponder, a Talladega County School Board member. “If you give a second- or third-grader a choice between an iPad or a mud hole full of frogs, they’re going to choose that mud hole 99 percent of the time. I believe teachers across Alabama are hungry for stuff like this. They’re just as tired of four walls and a chalkboard and desks as the kids are.”
Ponder was integral in developing the forestry-themed school campus, which now includes 12 outdoor classrooms, amphitheater, nature trail, longleaf pine stand, low ropes course, greenhouse, fish pond, frog pond, five-tier wetland, butterfly gardens, blue bird trail and an aquaculture facility.
“My favorite project was in my aquaculture class,” said Munford High School senior Abby White. “We created a hydroponic system where we made plants grow without using any soil. It was pretty cool. People will always ask how much it costs to come to this school, and they’re amazed when I tell them it doesn’t cost anything because it’s a public school.”
White hopes to study physical therapy after graduating but said she’s considering a minor in a wildlife-related field because of her time at Munford.
Agriscience teacher Carey Adams said he’s seen other students who also consider different careers because of classroom experiences.
“A lot of kids didn’t think they’d be interested in agriculture, but with everything we can do here with the greenhouse and our shop, it starts to change students’ minds,” Adams said. “They think about going to Auburn University, Alabama A&M University or Mississippi State University to study agriculture or natural resources.”
Munford science resource teacher Kimberly Murray said she’s proud of the commitment from Munford residents and businesses that has built an innovative solution for teaching students the Alabama course of study.
“This is a collaboration of an entire community coming together to teach kids more about the outdoors and agriculture,” Murray said. “The community does so much for these kids and the schools, and we want to teach them to give back to the community as well.”
The Talladega County Farmers Federation is one of the school’s community partners. The group donated fish for the fish pond before the school’s Farm Day event in May 2016, and board member Justin Lackey showed students new tractors at the Snead Ag booth.
“Some of these kids have never been this close to a tractor before,” said Lackey, store manager for Snead Ag. “The Talladega County Farmers Federation is getting involved with schools because we know kids are the future.”
For Ponder, the schools help emphasize a sense of pride in students as they learn to care for the unique natural resources and environment of Talladega County, including the national forest.
“It’s built a better attitude in students,” he said. “We have better sports teams. Teachers are happier. Discipline issues have gone down and grades go up. I think natural resource conservation education should be the hub of all education because everything can be taught from it. And maybe one of these days that will happen, and we can say that it started in Munford.
For video of the school, search for “No Child Stays Inside” on YouTube, or watch clips from an episode of Simply Southern at SimplySouthernTV.net.