At the Will Smith Zoo School, children spend their days in areas devoid of traditional classroom elements. The campus, to be unveiled for an official grand opening on Wednesday morning, features spaces that bring students outside for unique learning experiences.
One of those areas, the Wilderness, which school officials refer to as “the anarchy zone,” contains a spread of building materials in disarray – pots and pans, discarded boxes, and branches. The space was designed to let students play and build structures with the understanding that learning isn’t always pretty, but nonetheless important, said Vice President of Education for the San Antonio Zoo Stacy McReynolds.
McReynolds said the zoo’s new facility will allow the school to expand its offerings to a larger student body. She projects enrollment will increase to 220 students by 2019.
The new campus, which students have been exploring since Jan. 4, has been in the making for two years. In January 2015, zoo officials purchased land at 103 Tuleta Dr. north of downtown. In May 2015, the zoo began development on the property, seeking to eventually move from its then zoo-adjacent location in the Education Center.
“We had 13 years at our last campus,” McReynolds said. “Our outdoor learning environment was simply two fenced-in spaces outside our Education Center.”
The completed campus features 10 classrooms, five of which are full and in use, seven porch spaces and four outdoor play areas. The other five rooms will be pulled into rotation when enrollment increases in Fall 2018.
School curriculum promises students will spend at least half of their day outdoors, and the new campus promotes this philosophy with spaces designed for specialized activities.
One such area, Challenge Hill, came pre-made when the zoo purchased the land. The school added some rocks and stumps for obstacles, and children play outside, working to climb to the top.
A third area, Charlie’s Garden, holds a number of plant beds home to romaine lettuce, spinach, cilantro, beets, and more. Students will help tend to plants as they grow and then use them to feed animals at the zoo, McReynolds said.
Teacher Erica Solis said having the outdoor space allows her students to apply lessons from the indoors outside. Solis’ class is learning about birds and studies them in their natural habitat, instead of just seeing them in the pages of books.
Solis said she plans to have her students build binoculars and go birdwatching in the outdoor portion of the campus.
The new campus and its programs seek to reinforce the mission of the zoo’s educational branch, McReynolds said.
“It is part of the mission of the zoo, and doing things we say are important – securing a future for wildlife and limiting our footprint,” she explained.
Solar panels dot the roofline of the Conservation Pavilion, illustrating the school’s sustainability efforts. Each classroom is wrapped in regionally sourced wood taken from East Texas pines and features a kitchen that allows the school to forego the use of paper products.
This all contributes to the school being on track to certification as LEED platinum – a distinction the U.S. Green Building Council awards to structures built in ways that promote sustainability.
McReynolds said the zoo’s school is the first-ever preschool built to LEED platinum certification in the United States, adding that one other preschool in Greece shares the distinction. Lake Flato Architects was the firm assigned to the project.
Lake Flato Sustainability Director Heather Holdridge said the project still must undergo a process to become officially LEED platinum certified. Certification is a thorough process that is typically not achieved until a few months post-occupation, she said.
Some of the strategies Lake Flato implemented to achieve certification include cool roof and hardscape materials to reduce urban heat, low-flow fixtures and fittings to reduce water use, recycled construction materials used throughout the project, and bike racks and changing rooms to encourage alternative forms of transportation.
As the school grows from its current enrollment of 118 students to its maximum capacity of 220, it will continue fundraising in the hopes of offering more scholarships. McReynolds said the school aims to provide financial support for one-quarter of its student body and to expand a program to provide professional development for teachers in area schools, so they, too, can incorporate elements of nature-based learning into their classrooms.
“[This learning style] is fluid,” McReynolds said, “and it changes based on each individual child.”