the story of blackshear

Blackshear Elementary School opened in 1891 to provide a free, public education to Austin's African-American children during a time when public schools in Austin were segregated. Through the challenging years of desegregation in the Austin Independent School District (AISD), programs and facilities were expanded to service the education needs of the growing and changing student population. Blackshear's history includes not only historical controversial and academic challenges, but also recent obstacles such as neighborhood gentrification and broader city challenges such as decreasing affordability, which has led to a significant decrease in student enrollment over the past 10 years. However, due to the progressive fine arts curriculum and an academic commitment offered by Blackshear Elementary personnel, the school has been transformed into an academically vibrant and culturally rich campus that is currently ranked as one of the highest performing academic elementary schools in the state with an enrollment of nearly 300 students. This revitalized school is also the first public elementary Fine Arts Academy in AISD.

the story of the masterplan

In 2013, community leader Donna Hoffman and Blackshear principal Betty Jenkins solicited help from the design community for a schoolyard improvement project. I volunteered - thinking that it would be a straightforward design, and after a few meetings, it became clear that Blackshear needed more than a well-designed bench, they needed a broader, more holistic plan forward to guide volunteer efforts and improvements. My efforts for the last few years have been to engage partners for Blackshear Elementary from our design community - local landscape architects, architects, fabricators, and artists - to collectively beautify the school and strengthen Blackshear's community network.

current projects

I hope by sharing our projects we may all better appreciate how collaborative design and community engagement can shape the spaces and moments of beautiful memories. Take a look at our upcoming and past projects to learn more about our story.

 

Announcing the Blackshear Schoolyard Stage Design Competition!

REGISTER TODAY

 

The Blackshear Schoolyard Stage Design Competition is the product of a collaborative partnership between Blackshear Fine Arts Academy and AIA Austin DesignVoice. The PERFORM competition invites Austinites to shape the physical and psychological expression of a small community performance venue located in the heart of the Central East Austin neighborhood.

COMPETITION 

Teams of 2 to 5 Austin-based architects, landscape architects, engineers, designers, builders, and community members are invited to participate in a community-wide design competition benefiting the students of Blackshear Fine Arts Academy.  Blackshear is an AISD elementary school in east Austin that has made great strides academically in recent years by transforming itself into a fine arts academy.  Please consider helping the school further its arts mission by designing a much-needed new outdoor stage.

CHALLENGE 

Design a beautiful, safe, functional, and cost-effective schoolyard stage that is highly utilized by the Blackshear Fine Arts Academy and its neighbors, and expresses the Central East Austin neighborhood’s sense of identity through intentional placemaking.

CHARRETTE DATE 

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

Register by October 18th, 2017 to take part in the design competition.
www.aiaaustin.org/content/blacksheardesigncompetition

Save the Date - Blackshear_Vertical.jpg

community engagement  

aia designvoice build your own stage @ little east

AIA DesignVoice was out at Little East Saturday November 12th to promote the upcoming design competition for an outdoor stage and seating area, collect community and parent feedback, and engage the students to design a mini stage! Visitors constructed their own version of the stage and shade canopy with gummy bears, gumdrops, toothpicks, and paper!  Watch the movie for a taste of the delicious creations!

student engagement

mini-design competition with blackshear students
oct 11, 12,& 13 11:00 am - 1:50 pm

We’re looking for volunteers to work with the student groups building their creations! 

Groups of students divided per grade will be assigned one of the three possible sites and build their versions of the schoolyard stage with each group tackling discreet components of seating, shade, and stage. The medium will be tissue paper, pipe cleaners, and clay (materials color-coded by grade) at a 1/4" scale. The winners of each site by popular vote will be displayed on charrette day Saturday 10/21 as a way students can provide their input to charrette participants. The physical site model and designs will provide a rich resource for integration into digital 3d for VR as well as a stop motion backdrop for lego short movies.


PAST PROJECTS

Here is a selection of past design-related community projects with Blackshear. Community volunteer partners have been critical in the success of these projects and our ability to enhance the design offerings for students at Blackshear.

blackshear's fairy homes tour @ little east

The students worked all semester designing and building their unique structures to be nestled in the schoolyard. Students generated stories about their inhabitant(s) and selected their sites on the schoolyard with the help of Kristina Olivent from h+uo architects. They learned about the benefits of different materials with University of Texas School of Architecture Materials Lab Director Jen Wong, landscape elements with Landscape Architect Alisa West of West Shop, and furniture design with Mark Macek. Special thanks to fellow Pagers Beth Arnold, Ace Ren, and Michael Rahmatoulin for coming to Friday Enrichment and just helping the students strategize and build. The class ended with the students debuting their work on a docent led Fairy Homes Tour at Little East and animating their fairy homes to describe a little bit about their inhabitants with the help of the animation enrichment community partner.

If you're interested in getting involved for the next Fairy Homes Session, let us know!

BLACKSHEAR SCHOOLYARD IMPROVEMENTS 

 Mural Competition & Installation + Art Alliance Austin | Spring Summer 2016  In Spring 2016, Blackshear Elementary partnered with Art Alliance Austin to host a design competition for a set of four permanent murals on the north side of their school! The winning entry was a quartet of muralists    Jason Archer  ,   Briar Bonifacio  ,   Josh Row   &   Michael Sieben  captured the motto of the school, "Together we educate, enrich, and exercise to excel!"  For more specifics about the event and the great work that Art Alliance Austin does, visit their  website .

Mural Competition & Installation + Art Alliance Austin | Spring Summer 2016

In Spring 2016, Blackshear Elementary partnered with Art Alliance Austin to host a design competition for a set of four permanent murals on the north side of their school! The winning entry was a quartet of muralists Jason ArcherBriar BonifacioJosh Row & Michael Sieben captured the motto of the school, "Together we educate, enrich, and exercise to excel!"

For more specifics about the event and the great work that Art Alliance Austin does, visit their website.

 Storyteller Chair + Hatch Workshop | Fall 2015  In Fall 2015, Blackshear Elementary received a donation from the National Storyteller Martha Jean Hodges, the grandmother of a Blackshear student, to construct and install a Storyteller Chair. We approached  Hatch Workshop , a fabricator in our East Austin neighborhood, to design this piece. They did a fantastic job and shared the story of the chair at the inaugural reading at Little East 2015.  The slabs were from a reclaimed fallen cypress in Town Lake, and the throne-like cedar timber posts were from the UT Childcare playground - salvaged when the playground was demolished and still bears the hole where the pull-up bar was located.  Through the story and chair, the students were able to see that through creativity and innovation a new story can be breathed into reclaimed materials.

Storyteller Chair + Hatch Workshop | Fall 2015

In Fall 2015, Blackshear Elementary received a donation from the National Storyteller Martha Jean Hodges, the grandmother of a Blackshear student, to construct and install a Storyteller Chair. We approached Hatch Workshop, a fabricator in our East Austin neighborhood, to design this piece. They did a fantastic job and shared the story of the chair at the inaugural reading at Little East 2015.

The slabs were from a reclaimed fallen cypress in Town Lake, and the throne-like cedar timber posts were from the UT Childcare playground - salvaged when the playground was demolished and still bears the hole where the pull-up bar was located.

Through the story and chair, the students were able to see that through creativity and innovation a new story can be breathed into reclaimed materials.

 Water Learning Signage + Page Engineering | Summer Fall 2015  In Summer 2015, Blackshear Elementary installed water learning signage at its storm sewer around the schoolyard. The run off calculations were done by Chris Lee at Page and converted into relatable quantities that were then laser cut onto signage by Jen Wong Director of the University of Texas Materials Lab. These were installed by various volunteer groups including Senator Kirk Watson's office and the UT Outreach organization.

Water Learning Signage + Page Engineering | Summer Fall 2015

In Summer 2015, Blackshear Elementary installed water learning signage at its storm sewer around the schoolyard. The run off calculations were done by Chris Lee at Page and converted into relatable quantities that were then laser cut onto signage by Jen Wong Director of the University of Texas Materials Lab. These were installed by various volunteer groups including Senator Kirk Watson's office and the UT Outreach organization.


Congratulations to Blackshear Elementary on recognition as a Blue Ribbon School!  The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program is a United States government program created in 1982 to honor schools which have achieved high levels of performance or made significant improvements in closing the achievement gap in schools where at least 40% of the student population is classified as disadvantaged.  It's so great to hear that the staff, students, and parents are receiving recognition for all of their hard work these past few years!!  Below is a fantastic video they put together for the celebration that really captures the unique spirit of Blackshear.

Join us and become a Blackshear Partner today!

Much thanks to our partners & volunteers for helping us realize our plans

Mark Word Design
Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas
Treefolks
City of Austin Urban Forestry Program
Tarrytown United Methodist Church

Blackshear Bridge
UT School of Architecture's Materials Lab

Eastside Lumber
Steelhouse mfg
Art Alliance Austin
Social Design Alliance
Hatch Workshop

DEVELOPING + INSTALLING THE MASTER PLAN | FALL 2014 

Mark Word Design volunteered their office's time to help put together a master plan from all the input that we gathered from our student, community, and staff input sessions to help guide our schoolyard efforts. When we learned that Blackshear would be receiving resources and volunteers from Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas, the design team worked weekends to put together necessary plans.

When speaking with Molly from Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas, she mentioned that the program - which identifies AISD schools that could benefit from a massive volunteer improvement project - had significantly amplified what it could do when it teamed up with AISD Facilities to leverage its stock yard materials and capacities. Not only did the volunteer group gain important resources but the improvements could be better maintained by AISD Facilities.

We worked with Molly, Blackshear Principal Ms. Jenkins, the AISD Forester, Mark Word Design, and the landscape architect to develop a work plan and design that would meet the school's needs and AISD's policies. Working collaboratively with many different priorities can be a challenge - especially in a volunteer capacity - but the master plan that was developed will help guide volunteer efforts towards a cohesive design that strives to incorporate the concerns and priorities of the many different parties.

We are also so grateful for the incredible efforts of Amplify Austin, Treefolks in partnership with the City of Austin Urban Forestry program, Tarrytown United Methodist church, Keep Austin Beautiful, Blackshear Bridge, and so many of the others who donated time and resources fall and winter 2014 to help develop and realize the first phase of the master plan.   

master plan - stakeholder input

Leading up to developing the master plan, we reached out to the staff, student, and community for insight into what they would like to see on the schoolyard. As Blackshear is a Fine Arts Academy, we wanted to incorporate a piece of the development into the student's curriculum.

student input

The images in the video came straight from our student input session!  Blackshear students came up with some innovative ideas for features that they would love to see on their schoolyard.  Designers from multiple local firms volunteered their time to work with student groups to evaluate the elements on their schoolyard and then develop their own version of the plan.  See are blog for the details. Below are just a few (from left to right) - a garden with a shed and pond, a bee house, and an art easel for outside art classes!

staff input

We talked to staff about how to better align the resources of the schoolyard with existing curriculum.  One group even put together their ideas in a plan with the art teacher, Ms. Healey, as drafts(wo)man!  Research indicates that a schoolyard integrated into the curriculum is better maintained and used by the staff and students.

photo 2.JPG

community input

The flyer from the video was from our input gathering efforts last spring. We met with the Blackshear Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Blackshear/Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association to discuss what they would like to see on the schoolyard, and we also tabled at the Rosewood Choice presentation at Blackshear Elementary.  Shade and seating were high priorities for community members.


What is the general design process?

Design solutions are typically represented with plan, section, elevation, and perspective drawings, and sometimes include 3D or physical models. These show zones, spaces, pathways, materials, plantings, etc. to allow one to understand the design and intention.  These materials can then be used as tools for fund-raising, permitting, and construction.  In our case, we will also be using these as educational tools to engage the Blackshear students in creative thinking and ecological awareness through a series of enrichment sessions.

We will be following a step-by-step site design method recommended by Kevin Lynch and Gary Hack that is designed to help landscape architects approach projects.

  1. Background Research
  2. Site Inventory & Analysis
  3. Design Generation

Legal construction drawings, "working drawings," are more detailed drawings that are used for construction and often used for bidding a project and permitting.  Depending on the type of intervention, manner of construction, and city permitting requirements, the illustrative site-plan drawing and/or model may be sufficient for the project.  It is our goal to arrive at a master plan that will allow for a cohesive design that has the flexibility for accommodating future projects.

Excellent outside schoolyard resources that we have been consulting include:

  • Lauri Macmillan Johnson Creating outdoor classrooms : schoolyard habitats and gardens for the Southwest

This text provides an interesting history of schoolyard design including background and references to research into childhood education.  The design process section is particularly robust, so we have tried to integrate it this information into our presentations to staff and others to give a clear idea of the steps we will be taking to get to our goal.

  • Sharon Danks Asphalt to ecosystems : design ideas for schoolyard transformation

This text has great photos documenting a number of case studies around the world of unique schoolyards that have creative educational elements.  These options could be a great "idea generator" for brainstorming working sessions with both the students and staff.

A. History

As one component of the background research, we have focused on the history of the school and surrounding neighborhood.  The school's rich past and important role in the fabric of East Austin lend the project a unique character.  We would like to gather stories from former alumni/ae and others who have a connection to the neighborhood.  If you would like to be a part of the historical portion of the project, then please contact us directly.  I find this component of the design especially interesting - read more about my findings and research at the Austin History Center.

B. Basic needs & desires of school population & surrounding community

As our first steps to better understanding the basic needs and desires of the school population and surrounding community, we have been engaging the community at neighborhood events at the school.  We will also have several focused brainstorming sessions with the staff & students scheduled for late March.  Our format for these sessions will follow the design process methodology  from the Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators from IDEO.  The toolkit is free and a great resource for guiding creative design in groups.   It has been used with success in developing other schoolyards - check out their website for more information.

In addition, we would also like to involve the surrounding community by offering different avenues for public input. We have an online input form to capture feedback from the community at large.

 

2. Site Inventory & Analysis

With the help of AISD, our partners at HTU, and the students at Blackshear Elementary, we will be conducting a site inventory analysis to gather the necessary information about the schoolyard.  This information includes research & observation elements

  • site ecology
  • climate data
  • sun exposure
  • topographic changes (hills and valleys)
  • plant diversity
  • watershed information, washes or drainage-ways
  • wildlife habitat

as well as legal restrictions

  • underground utility locations
  • easements & setbacks

We have not had much luck in finding existing documents of the site.  The earliest site plan that we could locate is from the 60s.  We know that the additional buildings in the 2000s were completed by Datum Engineers, but we are still trying to locate a survey.  At present, we have put together a site plan of existing utilities, trees, and topography from a combination of GIS data, on-site work, and aerial photographs.    

3. Design Generation

Through the collaborative efforts of Blackshear Bridge with school administrators, teachers, maintenance staff, students, parents, community members, artists, landscape architects, and others to generate a clear idea of goals and needs of the staff and community.  This list of priorities was presented to the local landscape architecture firm, Mark Word Design.  Their portfolio of work includes the landscapes at Commodore Perry Estate and at Hotel San Jose and has been featured in the New York Times.

From the list of priorities, the design team synthesized and proposed a schoolyard master plan that was reviewed and revised with AISD.  This design considers the schoolyard in phases, so that we might implement areas as funds and donations become available.  

We hope to summarize and synthesize this information, so that we might provide resources and methods to other schools interested in following a similar path for their own schoolyard.