Since 2013, I have been volunteering my time to help Blackshear Elementary in East Austin develop and implement a schoolyard master plan. With the support and partnership of many local organizations, businesses, as well as the tireless efforts of the Blackshear principal and staff, we have made many impressive strides! My hope is that by sharing our process and progress with others we may appreciate how design matters.

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
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



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

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

Storyteller Chair + Hatch Workshop | Fall 2016

Storyteller Chair + Hatch Workshop | Fall 2016

Water Learning Signage + Page Engineering | Summer Fall 2016

Water Learning Signage + Page Engineering | Summer Fall 2016

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.


A huge, very grateful shout out to Mark Word Design who volunteered their office's time to help put together a master plan from all the input that we gathered!  Shaney worked extra hours to make sure we had the necessary work plans for our volunteer groups.  

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 last fall and winter to help realize a portion of the master plan.  

To learn more about the Fine Arts Academy and their incredible programs visit their website!  

next steps...

There's a lot more in store for Blackshear Elementary!  Big thanks to Jen Wong, director of the UT School of Architecture Mat Lab for all of her time and effort lasercutting stencils for our water-related educational signage!  Here's a sneak peak... guess which watershed we're in...

Teachers identified water as a priority site teaching tool because of its tangibility to students and importance in our climate.  Also thanks to Chris Lee - our civil engineer who did the runoff calculations and helped us to convert to relatable quantities.  (just how many gallons are in a swimming pool? cfm what?)  

Meanwhile, Steelhouse, mfg - a local fabricator - fabricated and donated four beautiful new custom bench frames that we painted a bright orange, and our own neighborhood Eastside Lumber graciously donated the wood for the backs and seats!  Seating was identified as a huge priority for both the staff and community - especially near the playscapes, so we are very excited to install these.  The rainy weather postponed some of our UT volunteer installation plans, but with the return of the sunshine hopefully we'll have some photos to share soon!

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.  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.

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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.