On the southwest corner of Prisk Elementary’s campus sits the school’s latest addition—an eye-catching outdoor learning arbor immediately adjacent to the school’s native garden. While the garden has been a well-publicized staple of Prisk’s campus for decades, it has never been adorned with an outdoor classroom like the one it has now.

The floor is made of composite deck boards, and it houses eight brightly painted benches for students to sit in the shade of the wooden arbor overhead. The project was the brainchild of Kai Cobabe, a former Prisk student who is now a senior at Millikan High School.

The timing is perfect: In an effort to combat COVID-19, the Long Beach Unified School District said it would encourage teachers to use appropriate outdoor areas on their campuses for class activities this school year. But the plans for Cobabe’s project actually originated back in June of 2018 when he was speaking with new Prisk science teacher David Macander, who had hoped to use the area for his science lectures.

The idea made sense for Cobabe, who needed a project that would showcase his leadership skills in order to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Three years later, after numerous delays caused by the pandemic, the project was finally completed at the start of the current school year.

“In elementary school, we used the area very rarely; and even then, the benches and tables that were there were sort of splintering and falling apart,” Cobabe recalled of his time at Prisk. “I understood how important and useful that area could be because even though it wasn’t in the best condition at the time I was using it, it was still a great place to go.”

Kai Cobabe in his Scout uniform. He came up with the idea of building an outdoor classroom for his Eagle Scout project. Photo courtesy the Cobabe family.

Once Cobabe got his idea approved, he began fundraising for materials through GoFundMe, receiving a ton of support from friends, family and strangers. Construction began in April of this year, and the project took more than four-and-a-half months to complete. Since the start of school, the finished product has received glowing reviews from the school’s administration.

“We’re thrilled to have the newly renovated outdoor learning arbor, and it turned out to be even more stunning than we could have imagined,” said Prisk principal Beth Cohen. “It’s truly incredible. The vision that Kai had, and the fact that he was able to get the resources, talent, and lead people in making his vision come to life is amazing.”

Crews of volunteers ranging from 10 to 24 workers spent almost every day last summer working under Cobabe’s leadership to bring the renovated arbor to life. Kai credits his father, Kevin, as well as his Eagle mentor and Scoutmaster for helping him develop the skills needed to oversee this type of project. The interest in design and construction seems to run in the family, as Kevin Cobabe makes his living as a high-end pool and spa contractor.

The original scope of the project did not include the brand new wood flooring—only washing and replacing the gravel that made up the existing floor. But when Cobabe received a donation of 200 composite deck boards, he was able to add in the flooring to go along with the renovated shed and arbor.

With kids now back on campus, Mike Letteriello, who is in charge of Prisk’s native garden, has been offering tours to interested students during lunchtime. That corner of campus serves as a living laboratory of sorts, with students having the opportunity to get hands-on learning opportunities in the native garden and the adjacent outdoor classroom.

“I participated in a first-grade science lab where we did the instruction in the learning arbor and then went over to the native garden, and it was so cool,” principal Cohen said. “It’s such a positive, happy place, and it just draws your attention.”

Cohen said the outdoor classroom could be used by any teacher who requests the space, whether for science, music or any other subject. The ultimate vision for the area would be to integrate it into the school’s science lab, providing a unique outdoor experience for students.

Cobabe said he is still awaiting his opportunity to complete his Eagle Board of Review, a requirement to officially earn his rank of Eagle Scout. Beyond high school, he plans to pursue an education in chemical engineering either at Long Beach City College or another college further from home.

Wherever he ends up, Cobabe has already left his mark at his former elementary school, creating a learning environment to inspire the next generation of Pioneers.

After 38 years teaching, she had one last job: helping her students through a pandemic