You don’t need a study to tell you that Dallas gets hot. Yet a valuable report from a few years ago from the Texas Trees Foundation tells us some of the why—in short: too much concrete, not enough trees—and some very specific where. Among that study’s more alarming details is the fact that some of the hottest parts of Dallas include our medical districts and schools.
“Elementary school campuses are especially hot,” says Samantha Bradley, who manages the Cool Schools program for the Texas Trees Foundation. “Most school grounds have 7 percent canopy coverage and we’re aiming for 30 percent.”
It’s never just some more trees, but the Cool Schools program is also aiming for something that goes beyond increasing the amount of shade and clean air on school campuses. With funding from private philanthropy and via partnerships with the school district, the city’s parks and recreation department, the Trust for Public Land, and 29 Pieces, the Texas Trees Foundation has developed six outdoor spaces that double as neighborhood parks and outdoor learning areas. They’ve been in use for a few months now, but on Wednesday the foundation will formally celebrate the grand opening of these parks at six Dallas ISD elementary schools: Sam Houston, Ireland, Reinhardt, Salazar, Guzick, and Burnett.
The parks share the same goals, Bradley says. They’ll help students cool off, for one thing. They’ll get kids away from their electronics, if only for a moment, addressing what Bradley calls the problem of “too much screen, not enough green.” And studies show that getting outdoors has clear benefits for education.
“We know that spending time outdoors increases retention and problem-solving and creative thinking,” she says.
Each outdoor learning area was made to suit each space, although they all include new outdoor learning spaces, playgrounds, and loop trails. Teachers and students were invited to help with designing the program at their respective schools, and each park has its own unique characteristics and amenities, from labyrinths to weather stations to soil alteration units. The Cool School at Reinhardt Elementary, for example, now boasts a playground, a loop trail, and murals produced by Dallas artists. Oh, and 85 more trees. The Cool Schools program includes instruction on urban forestry and environmental stewardship, which starts with the making of the parks.
“The tree planting itself, we provide teachers with curriculum around it,” Bradley says. “And then [the students] actually plant the trees.”
The educational aspect of the program is ongoing, and Texas Trees is developing a sort of “how-to” guide that can show how everything from math class to a lesson on environmental responsibility can be held outside. After school and on weekends, everybody else can come in and enjoy the new parks. That’s part of what’s made the program so innovative, and occasioned buy-in from the city’s parks and recreation department. “That’s what our culture is moving toward, is shared space,” Bradley says. “Dallas ISD allows us to use the land, we come in with the funding, and then parks and rec gets to use it.” For under $2 million, she says six schools and their neighborhoods have gotten outdoor learning spaces, trails, new playgrounds, and a learning curriculum. And don’t forget the trees.
The Texas Trees Foundation has plans to extend the program to work with middle schoolers and high schoolers, and more neighborhood parks are coming in the immediate future. Groundbreaking for the development of parks at seven more schools is set for June 21. In the fall, the Cool Schools program will start moving forward on another 20 schools, Bradley says. (If you’re a deep-pocketed philanthropist who happens to be reading this and wants to attach your name to a worthwhile initiative, they’re still waiting on a title sponsor.)
In the meantime, Dallas is already a little bit greener. Pretty cool indeed.