In 1969, Henry Verges, the original administrator, began an outdoor education program for Junior High School students that was originally held at Hillsborough River State Park. This programming was primarily for Tampa’s inner-city 7th and 8th graders. In 1971, the Southwest Florida Water Management District moved into partnership with the School District of Hillsborough County. A thirty-year lease was granted to allow the move of the Nature’s Classroom program to its current site and began to serve every 6th grade student in the Hillsborough County Public School District. Originally a 5-day, outdoor skills program has been shortened to accommodate the growing numbers of Hillsborough County’s 6th graders. The 3-day Hillsborough River Watershed Field Study program still includes 6 of the original 10 activities that the students formerly participated in. Many of the activities that were removed from the original program are still available for special programming and summer camps.
A Brief History of Nature's Classroom
1968 - Frank Farmer, assistant superintendent for instruction, hired Henry Verges to set up an outdoor education program to serve inter-city youth. The program was to be funded using a combination of School District and Federal Funds.
1968-69 - The Nature’s Classroom program was conducted at Hillsborough River State Park for students from B.T. Washington and G. Washington Junior High Schools.
1969-70 - The grade level was changed to sixth grade and the Nature’s Classroom outdoor education program was made available to all students in the county on a voluntary basis.
1970-71 - The program became a part of the elementary curriculum and all sixth graders in the county participated. The site was expanded to 365 acres and moved to the current location off Morris Bridge Road.
1969-1974 - A one night overnight program was set up for inter-city youth as a part of the School District’s Model Cities Program. Three portables were set up on the site as dorms and a cafeteria.
1970 - A 300ft. boardwalk was constructed in the riverine swamp using money donated by the Kiwanis club and Tampa Audubon Society. The Nature’s Classroom staff and six volunteers from the education department at MacDill A.F.B. built the boardwalks.
1980 - Additional boardwalk was added by the Youth Conservation Corps.
1988 - The Hillsborough Wildlife Federation built the wooden, cracker house-style interpretive center and a third shelter.
1994-1996 - School District shifts away from the junior high concept and Nature’s Classroom becomes a middle schools
Fall 1995 - The School Board voted to close the program due to budget cuts. The site was kept open as a one-day field trip for the rest of the school year with the assistance of a Hillsborough County E.P.C. grant. Partially staffed by non-school board personnel.
1996-97 - The new 3-day Hillsborough River Watershed Study program was set up with funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, The Hillsborough Education Foundation and the School Board.
1999 - The Hillsborough Education Foundation began a capital campaign designed to renovate the facility.
2000 - Charter Schools begin to be incorporated into the 6th grade program schedule and transported via School District Transportation (Nature’s Classroom team)
Began managing SPLASH! Mini-Grant opportunities provided by SWFWMD
2001 - The new Bird-of-Prey Aviary is constructed. Awarded Florida D.E.P. Sustainability Award.
2002 - The upper portion of the boardwalk was refaced and the lower portion was completely rebuilt. The extension through the deer pen was added.
2003 - River Shelters Completed. Entire staff is once again Hillsborough County School District Employees (since 1995). Summer camp opportunities expand. New Survival Camp to be included with Wilderness and Water Adventure. Water Adventure opportunity expands to two groups.
2004 - TECO Center For Environmental Studies is completed. Community restroom building is completed. Site work begun for construction of new buildings.
2005 - Administration Building is completed. Eagle Scouts invited to conduct projects on property.
2007 - First Annual “Woods, Water and Wildlife” Festival and Open House Event. Summer Camp expands to offer Outdoor Skills Camp (exiting 6-8th graders).
2008 - The Animal Compound is relocated to an area above the 40 foot flood elevation. This marked the last component of the 1996 Hillsborough Education Foundation Capitol Campaign.