Laurel Mountain Elementary leverages Innovative School Grant, community partnerships to create a model campus for enrichment

Imagine a classroom where there are no boundaries.

Where the ceiling is a clear blue sky interrupted only by a few white fluffy clouds and a soaring hawk.

Or, a laboratory buttressed by fields of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes.

Or, a math lesson absorbed while laying in a hammock staring up at the sky.

That place exists in Round Rock Independent School District, where each campus is encouraged to discover what will set it apart, make it innovative and capture students’ imaginations with its own tailored approach.

At Laurel Mountain Elementary, that focus on innovation has allowed the campus to create a School For Enrichment and the Environment, developing grade-specific signature experiences aligned with the state curriculum that immerse students in nature.

Laurel Mountain is uniquely positioned alongside the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a federally-protected endangered species habitat. School leaders have leveraged Round Rock ISD’s Innovative School Grant initiative and partnerships with city and state agencies, community neighbors and local universities, to expand their unique model through the development of new flexible learning spaces, incorporating nature into regular student learning.

For the past two years, Round Rock ISD’s Board of Trustees have funded Innovative School Grants to implement, enhance and support innovative teaching and learning models. This year’s grants totalled $2 million, with each individual grant ranging from $47,000 to $100,000, and were awarded through an internal application and interview process.

“I am so proud of our Board of Trustees for continuing to provide campuses with opportunities to develop their academic culture and seek new and innovative ways to engage students,” Superintendent Steve Flores, Ph.D. said.

Given the beautiful surroundings of Laurel Mountain, defining that academic culture was simple, according to Trevor Hance, the school’s Coordinator for Enrichment and the Environment, who has received numerous awards and accolades for his work in environmental education.

“Research continues to build that shows that humans are happier, healthier and smarter, do better on tests, whenever we have an opportunity to learn and live in nature,” Hance said. “So, around here, we are huge fans of the innovative grant opportunities and what it has provided to this campus and kids that will come through here for years and years in the future.”

Those flexible learning spaces include a four-acre “Wildspace Laboratory” adjacent to the Balcones Canyonland Preserve; a teaching kitchen where students can do everything from cooking plants grown in the school’s edible garden to touching a live shark brought in by a marine biologist (don’t worry, they didn’t cook it!); a 1.5-acre student-designed nature playground; a pollinator garden; and, most recently an off-grid, solar-powered Nature to Neighborhood Studio for project-based learning.

Fifth-grader Annalise Breyer helped design the nature playground, where students worked with landscape architects to explore ideas and turn them into reality.

“I felt like I was really leaving a footprint on the school,” Annalise said. “A lot of other kids that I don’t know now are going to play on this and have a lot of fun.

“I’m really sad to be leaving next year,” she continued with a small, wistful smile. “I really love Laurel Mountain. I’m going to come back a lot.”