Laurel Mountain propels Innovative School Grants through community partnership

Laurel Mountain Elementary School is maximizing the value of its Round Rock ISD Innovative School Grants, putting in motion environmental, grant-funded projects that will bring new flexible learning spaces to the campus.

Laurel Mountain received a $75,000 Tier II Innovative School Grant to develop a natural play area and a $250,000 Tier III Innovative School Grant to expand schoolwide enrichment. RRISD Innovative School Grants were awarded to campuses during the 2016-2017 school year with a challenge to explore, enrich or design an exemplary model of innovation to serve students and the community.

An advisory panel consisting of local and national scholars, business people and environmental education leaders have joined Laurel Mountain students and leaders in planning for the projects. The campus was also awarded a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Community Outdoor Outreach Program (CO-OP) Grant in the amount of $37,776 to expand existing programs at the school that incorporate nature photography, fishing and environmental education in a Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) aligned instructional path that deepens student exposure to technology, scientific field experiences and service learning in the school’s Preserve and new “nature-play” area called “The Grove.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s CO-OP Grant Manager Cappy Smith said research shows that children who have experience outdoors are happier, healthier and smarter and the Laurel Mountain projects will help align students with the benefits of being in the environment.

“We are pleased to support the Laurel Mountain Elementary School project and we share their excitement about expanding their existing exceptional program that embodies the intent of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s CO-OP program,” Smith said. “Getting kids outside and allowing them to experience and make real-world connections to the natural world is so important for their academic, physical and emotional success. Laurel Mountain’s program will steward the next generation of conservationists in Texas and TPWD is proud to support nature-based education such as this.”

The Grove, designed by fourth and fifth grade students with support from the school’s Community Business Partner of the Year, TBG Partners, includes “rough and tumble” play areas, places for quieter, one-to-one, reflective and personal play experiences, as well as a grade-sized outdoor amphitheater and rain garden.

In addition to the TPWD CO-OP Grant, the school was awarded $3,000 from the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability to develop the rain garden. The rain garden will direct rainwater from an existing runoff flow pattern from the school’s parking lot and utilize that water to create a recharge zone of native grasses and wildflowers. Some of the work in this space will be completed by Laurel Mountain students, with support from the school’s advisory partners, the Jha Lab at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), which specializes in pollinator research and agroecology.

Megan O’Connell, Ph.D. student at the Jha Lab, has been working with Trevor Hance, Laurel Mountain science teacher and outdoor learning specialist, throughout the school year as part of the UT Environmental Science Institute’s Scientist in Residence Program. O’Connell and other scientists from the Jha Lab recently hosted fifth-grade students from Laurel Mountain on a field trip to UT where the students worked with graduate level scientists and Dr. Jha to extract DNA from strawberries.

The Laurel Mountain students invited the Jha Lab back to Laurel Mountain where fifth-grade students worked with the graduate level scientists to construct a new pollinator friendly garden near the school’s edible garden and science lab. The garden recently saw its first monarch caterpillars and students have used the space to conduct field studies of various pollinators that are visiting.

“There couldn’t be a more important time for scientists to connect with young people about the importance of what we do and why we do it,” O’Connell said. “Working with Mr. Hance, his students, and Laurel Mountain has been formative in my development as a science communicator and has completely changed the way I approach people about the relevance of science in all of our lives. It is opportunities like these, ones that bring creative, collaborative educators and scientists together that really make science accessible and generate incredible learning experiences for students, teachers, and scientists alike.”

With momentum and focus in place, the school held a “Groundbreaking Earth Day” event on April 21 where members of the school’s Innovative Grant Advisory Board, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steve Flores, RRISD Board Member Paul J. Tisch and several other district representatives celebrated the work of the students and started construction on the new spaces at Laurel Mountain. Over the summer, the infrastructure is expected to be complete on The Grove, as well as a transformation of the school’s science lab into a functional teaching kitchen and tech-makers lab. In the 2017-2018 school year, a new “Nature-to-Neighborhood Studio” will be constructed on an existing concrete slab towards the rear of the campus adjacent to the school’s Nature Preserve that will serve as a hub for field studies conducted by students, home for visiting scientists and engineers.

“We are so incredibly fortunate to work in a district and on a campus that has the vision and supportive leadership provided by Dr. Flores and Principal Richards to maximize the unique resources of the campus in an innovative fashion,” Hance said. “Providing campuses and teachers the flexibility to pursue strength and interest based learning results in long-lens academic learning and human development for our students and truly empowers them with skills and knowledge that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives. When you consider the quality individuals and organizations that have volunteered to work with us at Laurel Mountain as we develop these spaces, and the substantial grant investments by the City of Austin and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department that will help us build on our established TEKS-based nature and environmental learning programs, we could not be more excited and grateful to be part of Round Rock ISD.”