2023 — Maria del Carmen Martinez Early Learning Center

Alief ISD—Maria del Carmen Martinez Early Learning Center
Architect: Huckabee

New construction pre-kindergarten campus for 558 students; it is the inaugural early childhood center for the district and the prototype for a sister campus and future iterations. Configuration of the 79,000 sf campus is inspired by a village concept; the outdoor playgrounds are a prevalent feature and are surrounded by a winding pathway and six neighborhoods. Immersive learning is at the core and all aspects of the building are tactile and visually stimulating. Classrooms incorporate museum-quality environments that teach literacy and numeracy through play and exploration.

Design—Star of DistinctionDesign

The campus is organized into two villages that surround outdoor playgrounds and shared services at the core. Programming is replicated within both villages. Each space has a unique tactile and visual experience that supports developmental, social-emotional and cognitive skill building. The immersive environment is experienced at different levels throughout the campus. Contextual planning of distance and direction was important to meet young learners on their level. Corridors curve and meander to create a playful and wandering approach in lieu of long hallways that are overwhelming to young students.

Value—Star of DistinctionValue

Campus configuration is organic, yet modular. It allows the district to serve a larger student population, consolidate administration and amenities, and create a more efficient use of operational and maintenance resources. Two fully enclosed playgrounds are located at the core of the building. This approach required a complex solution to mitigate flooding that is prevalent in the region, but it resulted in a more secure play solution for young students. Interiors are highly inspired and reflective of the district’s desire to create a visual and tactile experience for students while maintaining operational efficiency.

Wellness—Star of DistinctionWellness

The campus is designed for young learners who enter with a diverse set of backgrounds. Design elements, wayfinding and visual cues are scaled to meet students where they’re at. There is continuous contact with the outdoors—from the placement of playgrounds to use of elements that relate to adventure. The nature-driven, explorative campus enriches the types of experiences students are exposed to. Curated classroom experiences support developmental, social and cognitive skill building with play.


The center is designed around the needs of young children, their parents and families. Their sense of belonging, engagement and protection are paramount. The focus on museum-quality learning environments follows a theme of, “See the world, locally.” Students have access to experiences that are not typically afforded to them. The district worked with a museum consultant to identify experiences that support literacy and numeracy and that reflect the community and surrounding region. Single-slope roof elements establish a dynamic scale while also blending within the residential context.


The goal was to evolve the district’s campus programs for full-day pre-K into a centralized and high-quality experiential learning environment. A museum consultant helped curate classroom experiences that reinforced literacy and numeracy and reflected the community. Four paradigms—town square, neighborhood, campground and village—were used to finalize functionality and interaction between space types. The team explored immersive features to encourage tactile and visual engagement in all aspects of the building. The team developed ed specs and design to serve as the prototype for this campus and a sister facility.

Transformation—Star of DistinctionSchool Transformation

The center represents the evolution of campus-based pre-kindergarten into a centralized and more immersive learning experience that aids developmental, social-emotional and cognitive skill building through play. The design changes the way students experience the built environment. Every aspect of the school is immersive and experiential from the moment you walk in the door. The district wanted students to envision a pathway to the future throughout their learning journey. Curated classroom experiences connect to career and technology pathways that are reinforced during elementary, middle and high school.

Stars of Distinction Star of Distinction Category Winner