HISD elementary school offers hands-on animal and environmental experiences year-round

Hartsfield Elementary School looks like an average campus from the outside. Inside the school’s front doors, even a keen observer might not immediately notice one of the elements that makes Hartsfield unique, even though it – or they – are just a few feet away, lining the hallways to the left and right: snakes, lizards, a tarantula, even an alligator, all call Hartsfield, HISD’s only Animal and Environmental Science magnet elementary school, home.

In addition to Hartsfield’s resident indoor animal friends, the campus also has a STEM lab, a vegetable garden, a pigpen, a chicken coop, and now, thanks to a group of Hartsfield first graders, a pollinator garden surrounding the school’s front entrance.

With assistance from local Houston nonprofit organization Altruistic Endeavors, some of Hartsfield’s first grade classes donned aprons and gloves and spent an afternoon class period planting herbs and nectar-rich plants to attract pollinators to the school grounds. While a useful experience for the students on its own, planting the pollinator garden is also a key element to Hartsfield and Altruistic Endeavors’ overarching goal of making some of the campus’s animal and environmental science elements self-sustaining. The first graders’ garden will attract creatures like bees and butterflies, which will go on to carry pollen to the vegetable garden, the produce from which will be used to feed Hartsfield’s animals.

Local community partners like Altruistic Endeavors make the unique learning experiences at Hartsfield possible. The school partners with the Houston Zoo and the Houston Museum of Natural Science to supplement their educational experiences, as well as local YMCAs and other HISD campuses with swimming pools where STEM and oceanography students can practice with underwater drones. Altruistic Endeavors is an organization devoted to supporting and promoting sustainability in vulnerable communities and have so far been working on-campus at Hartsfield for three weeks.

“It’s important to learn to do stuff like this so you can have a job doing it, or you can grow a garden at home,” said Hartsfield first grade gardener Angalie.

Principal Travis Johnson understands how strange it is to expect an elementary student to choose a lifelong vocation like animal husbandry or gardening, and so, he doesn’t. When he became Hartsfield’s principal in 2016, Johnson brought with him a vision of a school that provided its students with not only an education, but with experiences that would help to direct their goals and ambitions for the rest of their lives.

“I’m a big animal lover, and this has always been the vision that I’ve had for putting the joy factor back in schools,” said Johnson. “The way we do things here, kids are learning without realizing that they’re learning, and it makes them want to come to school and want to do better. I really want kids to make some early decisions in life to get them on a good pathway, whether it’s animals, STEM, gardening, whatever it is, I want our kids to be the best and to have opportunities that weren’t there for me when I was a kid, and opportunities that wouldn’t be available to them anywhere but Hartsfield.”

Johnson’s goal for Hartsfield is for the school to become an A-rated campus. At last assessment, Hartsfield was rated an 87, a high B, with three academic distinctions, so Johnson is confident that Hartsfield’s budding scientists, engineers, zoologists, and botanists will close the gap in the 2023-2024 school year.

For more information about Hartsfield’s unique program, visit the school’s website, or follow them on Twitter at @HartsfieldAES.