2023 — Jefferson Early Learning Center

Alief ISD—Jefferson Early Learning Center
Architect: PBK

“Alief ISD is a diverse, urban district spanning 36.6 square miles on the west side of Houston. 82.6% of students in Alief ISD qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the median household income is $46,655. Located on the corner of Bellaire Blvd and Howell Sugar Land Road, Alief ISD’s Jefferson Early Learning Center campus is organized into two villages providing students with a sense of community and place. Each village is comprised of three neighborhoods: Discovery, Inquiry, and Voyage. Each neighborhood includes four houses or experiences with a shared collaboration area. Following the theme of connecting children to nature and a sense of place, each village has unique outdoor learning environments; a centralized courtyard and two outdoor exploration courtyards. The villages surround a central building spine that shares administrative spaces, instructional support, and shared core enrichment spaces like indoor play, art, and music.

Outdoor Learning Environment \\ Learning Reimagined
Many students in Alief ISD do not have access to nature or the benefits it provides for both health and academics. An outdoor learning space at Alief ISD’s new early childhood center provides students an opportunity to safely enjoy time outside and experience the benefits of learning in nature.

Site Development
The early childhood center features an alternative approach to site development. In lieu of a flat site with Bermuda grass and the city-required landscaping, this site will use low impact development ideas with sheet flow, bio-swales, pocket prairies and even some reforestation.

Paths and outdoor classrooms are located throughout the undulating site to encourage student and community engagement with nature providing spaces where students safely enjoy time outside to explore and play with water, plant, and harvest vegetables in an edible garden, and observe the nature and prairies in their backyard. ”

Design—Star of DistinctionDesign

Treating every student as an individual with equal access to education drives the design. Different learning environments are provided for different types of learners. Outdoor learning drives the site, passive learning drives the corridors and exteriors, play based learning drives the neighborhoods, and immersive learning drives the classrooms. With this toolkit, every student has a safe space to enrich their education. Developing a love of learning at the earliest age looks like textured and colorful materials along corridor walls, views to nature at every corner, and materiality choices that speak to their natural environment.

Value—Star of DistinctionValue

The value both in cost savings to the district and added value to the community comes from the source of the design principles: Nature.  The partnerships that were developed with members of the community saved the district dollars and maintenance costs over time. These same dollars saved are now used as added value to the community by way of native landscaping that the public can engage with.  Texas Parries and forests that double as “nature preserves” cover most of the site. Providing the district with low-maintenance acreage and cost savings in detention infrastructure.

Wellness—Star of DistinctionWellness

The new center design is backed by research and local partners, who uncovered the benefits of play and nature in our learning environments. Creating a calming yet fulfilling learning experience drove the design. The gently curving form eases children into exciting spaces. With neighborhood hubs and reduced circulation, travel is more enjoyable and less overwhelming. Immersive outdoor learning environments can be found throughout the site, with views focusing on play areas and nature.

Community—Star of DistinctionCommunity

Celebrating the area’s diversity is reflected through all aspects of the design. As a source of education for not only young learners of the district, but the community, the site is a rich ecosystem showcasing diverse vegetation and wildlife. The building strives to provide the students with a sense of place using locally sourced materials, and themed immersive learning environments that connect them with the surrounding community. Even the curriculum of this progressive facility captures the diversity of the community with its mascot and guiding principles for educating the students within.

Planning—Star of DistinctionPlanning

The planning was influenced by community stakeholders and district leadership and goals were set to create a school like no other. The idea was born to imagine how a school could draw inspiration from its city, region, and surroundings and provide students scalable learning environments that foster a sense of place and belonging. The result is an inspirational school in a uniquely natural setting, and one that helps shift environmental awareness of the relationship between children and nature.

Transformation—Star of DistinctionSchool Transformation

The new Center redefines the future of Play-Based Learning through its simplicity and connection to nature. The design improves health and well-being by encouraging outdoor learning and access to native biodiversity in an urban setting. The Golden Spiral design connects students along an exciting path that showcases nature and play experiences. Transforming the surrounding site into a Texas Prairie ecosystem reimagines what a school site can do for children and the community.

Stars of Distinction Star of Distinction Category Winner