My Pulse News

Mena, Arkansas, News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

Duckett Outdoor Classroom groundbreaking

By Ethan Nahté

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on a blustery, overcast Thursday afternoon, March 30, for the new Ronnie and Mitzi Duckett Outdoor Classroom at the Mena Public School’s Natural Resource Lab. The construction was made possible through a generous donation by Mr. Ronnie Duckett.

The donation was strictly through Duckett’s benevolence according to Superintendent Lee Smith. “He called and said he’d like to build an outdoor classroom for the school. This was before the current 80 acres was purchased. We had nothing on the drawing board when Mr. Duckett called in. I was exploring with all of the principals. We had some ideas but nothing as grand as it turned to be.”

Duckett told the crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony, “I contacted Dr. Smith about a year-and-a-half ago, wanting to make a donation for an outdoor classroom. He put it before the Board. They agreed it was a good idea. Through that, Mr. Maye and the Ag teachers were working on this 80-acre outdoor classroom that’s going to include several things. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for the entire school to use, all the way from kindergarten through the seniors and provide opportunity for them that might not happen in the classroom.”

Duckett was the head teacher of Mena’s Agriculture Department for several years beginning in 1986. Before that, he was the head teacher of the Agriculture Department at Hatfield starting in 1974. It is named for himself and his late wife, Mitzi.

Agri Science Teacher Brian Maye at Mena High School said, “Mr. Duckett is contributing money to the construction of the outdoor classroom, which is located on the Natural Resource Laboratory for the Mena Ag Department. It’s a laboratory for our Natural Resource program of study. There’s going to be a lot to it. We’re going to focus primarily on the wildlife habitat management, and forestry and timber management. It’s for the kids to be able to get out there and get practical experience in how to manage the land according to those two objectives.”

The school just acquired the property back around the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. Maye confirmed that the school district recently placed a notice in the Pulse accepting timber harvest bids for thinning and select cutting of hardwood and softwood timber on the back 40 acres of the 80-acre property.

“Our goal is if the kids are interested in natural resources and they possibly want to pursue a career in forestry, wildlife biology, and those kinds of things,” Maye said. “I just feel like this will give them a leg up and some added experience going into college.”

Maye feels like they’ve already accomplished a lot with the new property, thanks in part to their partners Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the USDA Forest Service. 

“Steve Swall with NRCS is helping us with applying for grants,” Maye said. Swall is a district conservationist for Polk and Montgomery counties.

The City of Mena also helped the school with building a road to the acreage. $till, the property is probably a quarter mile away, requiring the school to utilize a mode of transportation to get the students to and from instead of spending a half-hour roundtrip walking to the outdoor classroom. Maye is hoping they can get a minibus or van that the school has at the ready on a permanent basis.

There are plenty of things that will need to be done to get the outdoor classroom going and maintaining it.

“I don’t know how much that project is going to cost but it’s a substantial amount of money,” Maye said. “The Ronnie Duckett family, from what I understand, is contributing all the money towards that to get it built.

“We have already erected two wood duck nest boxes on the pond back over on the north side of the property. We have planted food plots for deer. We’ve had the state forestry service come out and do quite a bit of prescribed burning, which improves habitat for wildlife. We plan on doing a lot of thinning and forest stand improvement to facilitate better habitat for wildlife as well. 

“We’ve just got a lot of projects and things we want to do. We’ve got some beehives that the local beekeepers association is helping us with. We’ll probably be planting some more wildlife blends this spring in our food plots, and maybe some pollinator blends out in an old field there by the shooting range.”*

The shooting range is used by the school’s trap team as part of the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program (AYSSP).

Maye is also wanting to have the property posted and a fence put around it, as well as a lockable gate at the entrance to protect the resources.

“The classes would be primarily sophomores through seniors,” Maye said. “The purpose of that outdoor classroom is to provide a place on the lab to cultivate learning, to host events from time to time, and a place for our students to be outside and enjoy creation.”

The classroom can be utilized by the other teachers and grades outside of the high school, such as the middle school’s Project Lead the Way Program for STEM. Smith said, “I think the outdoor classroom is something that all of our STEM teachers can use, or any of our teachers could to some degree. Our fine arts should be able to take advantage of coming out here for inspiration, for example.”

Maye said, “If other classes want to get out there and use it, they can use it too. The Forest Service plowed out some firebreaks and made units within the timber. There would be some good walking trails.

A program such as the outdoor classroom could also help draw more students and families to the area based on what Mena Schools will have to offer.

“I think it would be very attractive because of the variety of the teaching approach it lends itself to,” Smith said, “One of the lines in the FFA model is Learning by Doing. Its programs like this, being in nature seeing the results of their work and the experience to use a skill to create a positive outcome. I think that’s what parents are looking for is so their kids gain skills that are applicable in the outdoor world and that’s what this outdoor classroom gives them.”

“It’ll be an on-going process from now on,” Maye said, “because land management is a continuation of what you’ve done in the past.”

“I think this is one more thing that will make Mena Public Schools an attractive option to anybody moving into the area,” Smith said.

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