New schools will bring the outdoors into classrooms, common areas

At lunchtime at Milby High School, many students head outside to the athletic field just to get out of the building for a few minutes.

“They inundate our backfield during lunch,” said the school principal Roy De la Garza. “There’s this tendency of wanting to be outside. So, I know that having improved outdoor spaces will be really good for our students.”

HISD is building new schools that will include courtyards and green spaces that serve as outdoor learning and common areas, providing students a place of comfort to study, perform or to simply unwind between classes.

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These spaces, complete with Wi-Fi access, will model courtyards at colleges and 21st century learning environments that encourage student learning and collaboration not just inside classrooms but outside of the building, too.

Milby is one of 40 schools that will be rebuilt under HISD’s 2012 bond program. Each bond campus has a Project Advisory Team comprised of students, staff, and parents who are working with architects and HISD facility planners to develop design plans for the new facilities.

Design drafts for Milby show a courtyard with a partial covering and space for tables, seating and a small outdoor performance area that student organizations can use for meetings, rehearsals and special events. The school currently has two small courtyards on the campus, but they’re isolated and split by the building.

“We want to consolidate the courtyard into one large space,” De la Garza said. “This will also make the space more secure because our staff will be able to stand in one place on the courtyard and see every corner and every student.”

The Milby PAT has shared ideas for the courtyard to include a windmill, small cisterns to collect rain water, and an herb garden for students in the culinary arts department to use.

“We’ve talked a lot about having a learning environment outside that is open and connected, so we can spread out,” said Milby student and PAT member Jacqueline Laurenzana.

Being able to take class and experiments outside stimulates learning and engages students, especially in science classes and blended learning opportunities, said Dan Bankhead, HISD’s general manager of facilities design. Green spaces adjacent to learning areas inside the school also help to add more daylight into the building and will improve the district’s sustainability efforts, he added.

“It helps to get out of the classroom,” Bankhead said. “If you have an area set up for outdoor instruction for students to study and break out into groups, it makes for a unique and pleasant learning environment.”

Large open courtyards are also being planned in the design of the new Lee and Booker T. Washington high schools. At Lee, four academic neighborhoods will open out to a courtyard, and there will be another courtyard for career and technology education classrooms to create opportunities for groups to collaborate on large projects outside.

The courtyards at Washington will be located just outside of classrooms, the cafeteria, and science and engineering laboratories. Students in the engineering program that includes specialized curriculum in construction and rocketry will use the courtyards to work with soil outside and to study the weather and the sky.

“Our courtyards are discovery, science and engineering focused,” said architect Ed Schmidt of Fanning Howey House Partners, the firm designing the school. “One of our design principles has been that education begins the moment the students step onto the campus. This required us to engage the site through the building exterior and academic courtyards laced within the building design.”

At the newly designed Carnegie Vanguard High School, students are already putting their outdoor learning areas to good use. The school, which was rebuilt under the district’s 2007 bond program, has courtyards where students often meet for lunch. The outdoor area also has a performance space with leveled seating and a green roof used as lab and classroom space for science classes.

On some mornings before school starts, the green roof is turned into an outdoor yoga studio with exercise mats for a 40-minute yoga class offered free to students and staff.

“I really like that we have fresh spaces that we have open access to,” said Carnegie student Emily Times, who is a member of an environmental student organization called The Green Club. The group meets in the courtyard where members planted a garden of Texas native plants. Students are also using the courtyard for recycling efforts on campus.

“Students are drawn to the outdoor spaces and learn better when the environment around them supports that learning,” said Melissa Matsu, an instructional coordinator at Carnegie. “Students are taking a lot of pride in the way that their school looks and functions because of the integration of outdoor learning spaces.”