A soggy square of space at SPARK Academy at Cowart Elementary School in Athens has been transformed into a soothing, natural outdoor learning space for students and teachers.
The new Cowart courtyard was unveiled this week with a cake and punch reception at the school. State lawmakers, parents, grandparents, teachers and students attended.
Principal Beth McKinney paused the party Thursday to thank everyone who helped turn the sodden courtyard into a coveted place for students and teachers.
"We had a courtyard that was basically wasted space, which was unused because it had a severe drainage problem," McKinney told The News Courier. "With help from our state lawmakers, Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence) and Rep. Danny Crawford (R-Athens), who together donated $12,000 to the project, and our parent-teacher organization fundraiser, the space will now serve as an outdoor learning space that our students and faculty can be proud of."
Michael Griffin and Jason Truett — each members of the SPARK Advisory Council, a group of parents and community members who planned the improvements — said they were pleased with the results.
"Everybody, especially Beth (McKinney), did a great job," Griffin said, noting they assessed the situation, laid out a plan, got some estimates and Grayson Bailey mainly did the work.
"It cleans it up a lot, and it got rid of the water problem that has made (the courtyard) unusable," said Griffin, who has a kindergartner at the school.
In addition to removing the water issue, Truett, who also has a kindergartner at the school, said the project added green space and seating, giving the school "a nice classroom."
For years, the courtyard remained an eyesore due to standing water. But a coordinated effort by school partners, landscapers, community leaders and others turned the mire into green space by correcting the underlying drainage problem and adding a stone drainage path, concrete walkway, pampas grass and other landscaping.
They also added tent swings, wooden gazebos, picnic tables, benches, a bridge, additional outdoor seating and more.
McKinney told The News Courier she initially considered adding colorful plastic seating to the arrangement, but she chose neutral-colored seating because it meshes with the natural setting.
McKinney said during the reception the school plans to sell Bundt cakes in the spring to raise money for more improvements, including moving the playground off the hill and closer to the school building.
She publicly thanked others who contributed to the endeavor, including:
• SPARK Advisory Council, which planned the improvements;
• Friendship Church, the school's partner in education, which moved old fencing, plantings and classroom parts;
• Richard Martin, the driving force behind the Rails-to-Trails walking and biking trail and a community activist;
• Grayson Bailey Landscaping, which landscaped and sodded the area; and
• Scott Hargrove, who landscaped, poured concrete and built the wooden bridge.
McKinney said the many volunteers essentially turned "SPARK Lake" into a useful learning space.
"We are very excited (about the project)," she told The News Courier.
Crawford said of all the projects he has given money to from TVA in-lieu-of-tax funds, this donation was very well-spent.
"I am really tickled with the results, and I know Sen. Melson is also, and that he would say so if he could be here today," he told The News Courier.