Eight years ago, Diana Marchant’s students at Woodland Forrest Elementary School were afraid to go out in the nearby woods.

"They would hold onto me because they were scared a bear was going to maul them to death," Marchant said.

In the years since then, Marchant and the Woodland Forrest staff have created their own outdoor classroom to learn more about the environment, and they grow vegetables during the fall and spring months. During the course of a day, Marchant will lead 100 children through the outdoor classroom for 30 minutes to an hour a day to learn more about the world around them.

Now, Woodland Forrest has been named a Green Ribbon School by both the state Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. The school is one of three in Alabama and 46 in the country to be given the recognition. The schools were honored for "innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness, and ensure effective sustainability education."

"Being acknowledged as a Green Ribbon School is a testament to the school’s commitment to providing a learning atmosphere that is healthy and environmentally friendly. It also speaks to the school’s leadership and ability to enact change," state Superintendent Eric Mackey stated in a news release. "Continuing such practices not only creates a better school climate, it also contributes to the ultimate goal of improving academics for Alabama students."

Marchant said through the outdoor classroom, students have access to nature trails, a covered amphitheater, and gardens that they maintain themselves. There is also an indoor lab Marchant uses that houses different animals, such as rabbits and turtles, to teach children about wildlife.

During the fall, Marchant dealt with students between second and fifth grade. In the spring, her classes were predominantly made up of kindergarten, first-grade and third-grade students.

Marchant has worked at Woodland Forrest for 18 years and leads the classroom as an ESTEM instructor, which encompasses the STEM school curriculum of science, technology, engineering, and math, but also brings in an environmental component. She is proud of the emphasis placed on teaching students about the world around them.

"You can learn about it indoors, you can read about the indoors, but you can’t experience it indoors," Marchant said.

Woodland Forrest Principal Terri Byrts said having students learn about the environment, while also being outside each day, makes learning new and relevant to them.

"There’s not a better way to learn than by seeing it and doing it," Byrts said.

In addition to holding classes outdoors, Marchant also oversees the school’s recycling program, making sure students know which items can be recycled and having them dispose of those items at school.

Marchant said she is thrilled for the program’s success and it has given her students things they can use and learn about in the future.

"By the time they are in fifth grade, it’s not just ‘me in the back yard;’ It’s about the environment that surrounds you," she said.

On Sept. 15, Marchant and Byrts will travel to Washington, D.C., to be honored and receive the Green Ribbon award on behalf of the school.

Reach Drew Taylor at drew.taylor@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0204.