Roger Rohrbach's fourth-grade students at Payson Elementary School enjoyed a day in the park Thursday. It was sunny and warm, just the kind of classroom 9-year-olds dream about.
"We've been doing a lot of things like seeing how many worms we have in the worm bins," said Amanda Foss, one of Rohrbach's students. "We've been trying to keep the plants alive, like the cactus and the bee tree things, the garlic and the potatoes. It's a really neat experience, especially working with Mr. Rohrbach. He makes everything that sounds like hard work fun."
The outdoor classroom, Heritage Panther Park on the north side of the school off Airline Road, has been a dream in the making for Rohrbach and his colleague, third-grade teacher Joanne Doyle.
In 1997, the two teachers got together and applied for a $5,000 Heritage Fund grant from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
It took a while to get the money, but Rohrbach and Doyle and their students, together with some high school volunteers, started the project by digging trenches, weeding, installing a drip system, and putting plants in the ground along with Arizona wildflower seeds.
Rohrbach said he's trying to teach the students that they can be effective -- that 9-year-olds can be active members of their families and their community.
Then they got a little help from their friends. The Arizona Department of Transportation donated some big boulders to help landscape the park, and the rocks were sandblasted with Southwestern designs created by PES students.
"Twenty-five businesses just went crazy," Rohrbach said. "The students started getting all kinds of things from the community -- palettes for the worm and compost bins, newspapers to shred for compost, sand, topsoil and granite.
"Roy Haught of Roy Haught Excavation donated any material we needed," Rohrbach said. "He started with all our fill dirt and stayed with us supplying our sand, topsoil and granite. He also did the initial land-shaping with his equipment."
Haught donated more than $1,500 in labor and materials, Rohrbach said
"Stan of Stan's Trucking offered to donate some of the trucking of Roy's materials," he said. "Many a load did Stan bring as needed."
The fourth-grade students got to know Stan and others from businesses around the community: Ace Hardware, Plant Fair Nursery, Foxworth, Yardworks, Tree Pro, TAG Grading, Payson Fence, Payson Concrete, The Rock Yard, and Arizona Public Service.
The Town of Payson donated three picnic tables and three park benches. School maintenance workers and custodians worked on the park after work.
The students also got to know Jerry English, a member of the High Country Garden Club, who helped them design their worm bins and showed them how important earthworms and composting are to any gardening effort.
On Thursday, English and Pauline Rodriguez, president of the garden club, were at the park to talk about the project with Chris Jones, county extension agent for the Gila County Cooperative Extension in Globe, and Leslie Honaker, project coordinator at the University of Arizona for School Gardens for the State.
Honaker and Jones were busy filming the students at work as part of a gardening demonstration they will present to students at other schools.
PES's Heritage Panther Park also has been mentioned in a national magazine, "Wild Outdoor World."
Former PES student Nichole Ploughe wrote a letter to the magazine explaining how students, teachers and members of the community transformed a weed-infested lot into a place of beauty and enjoyment. The magazine published her letter.
Nichole wrote: "My school is making a little park of native plants, a place where you can sit and listen to birds, walk or eat lunch."
"Everybody has been enjoying this park," student Jarissa Kirkpatrick said. "They all love this park a lot."
Jarissa said she loves to sweep the walkways and water the garden, but she doesn't spend as much time working in the garden in the winter as she did in the summer.
"Now we can't with the snow," Amanda said. "The park is looking bad 'cause there's no green. And if anyone breaks a branch, they have to go to the principal's office."
"That's because Mr. Rohrbach and Mrs. Doyle worked really hard for this place," Jarissa said. It's more successful than anyone thought."
"It's been a great success," Amanda said. "There's always teamwork going on. It's a big thing to recycle. It's giving back to the earth from what it gave us."
Rohrbach and his students still have big plans for the park project. They plan to install a ramada and more park benches, a weather station, lighting and more walkways. Anyone who would like to make a donation to the project, can call Rohrbach or PES Principal Roy Sandoval at 474-5882.