Mobilizing the Community in Rural Texas

Public support for a bond measure was key to creating a state-of-the-art learning facility for a small Texas town.

Twice in 10 years the Pleasanton Independent School District presented bond measures to the small Texas community to finance new school projects, only to see the measures rejected by voters.
In 2015, the district tried again, taking a new approach to winning support in the rural community of 8,300, located about 30 miles south of San Antonio, the area known as the “Birthplace of the Cowboy.”

Guided by LPA, an extensive outreach campaign brought families into the process, giving them input into the design—and insight into the opportunities created by new learning environments. A 50-member, long-range committee was formed, including parents, business owners and community leaders, to examine every aspect of the local schools, from the status of current facilities to new technology and the best teaching spaces for children.

“The process was all about inclusion and listening,” says LPA Associate Principal and Managing Director Sara Flowers.

In May 2015, the community approved a $63 million bond measure, the largest bond in Atascosa County history. At the heart of the measure was $29.5 million to fund construction of a new 144,000-square-foot elementary school, bringing a state-of-the-art learning facility to the growing community.

“I think this is a testimony to groups of people coming together for the betterment of our students and our children,” PISD Superintendent Dr. Matthew Mann said after the bond was approved. “It is a real investment in the community.”

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Pleasanton Elementary School, which opened on time and under budget in 2017, reflects the community’s input in many ways, including an appreciation of the native landscaping. The city’s official motto is, “The City of Live Oaks and Friendly Folks,” making preservation of the mature oak trees on site a priority. LPA brought together stakeholders and an arborist to explore the site and evaluate the existing trees and how they could be used to enhance the campus.

Many aspects of the design are meant to take advantage of the site, while dealing with the Texas climate. The two buildings are formed around an open courtyard to channel the prevailing winds, creating a cool breeze through the center of the school. The buildings are oriented to pick up sunlight in the classrooms, while avoiding the direct rays of the south Texas sun. Heat gain and glare are managed through deep overhangs, shade porches, and external shading.

“The natural light that we are able to bring into the learning spaces is absolutely my favorite aspect,” Dr. Mann says today. The glass and “unexpected landscaping” allow for more “organic and natural spaces for students to learn in,” he says. “Too often in schools we have cold, clinical and very industrial spaces that are not conducive to learning.”

The school presents a low profile to the street, reflecting the district’s desire for a “warm” entrance, with a tiered campus that opens op behind the entrance. The material palette is responsive to the nearby existing schools, accented with cost-effective metal and wood elements that relate back to the tree-studded landscape.

Each wing of the school features a STEM Lab, computer lab, meeting spaces, writable walls and easy access to technology, in addition to two gymnasiums and special-designed music and drama rooms. Hallways are bright and open, with integrated seating for group activities. Grade levels are clustered into learning hubs. Collaborative spaces connected to the classrooms allow for more teaching areas and a diversity of spaces. Furniture is light and easy to move.

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“The design gave them a lot of educational flexibility,” Flowers says.

The design embraces the outdoors, using the space between buildings and the existing large shade trees to create outdoor classroom and gathering spaces. An art courtyard incorporates a large concrete table and sink and an outdoor writing surface. A tiered amphitheater allows multiple classes to gather for school events.

The project recently earned an Honor Award from the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the first such award given to a K-12 campus. It was also honored with a Merit award from the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018, recognition that creative and innovative design is possible within the budget constraints of a K-12 project.

Since the school opened in 2017, Dr. Mann has already seen changes in the students. “The campus has been transformative in a myriad of ways,” he says. “The students appreciate this environment and their behavior and performance has shown marked improvement.”

Dr. Mann also believes the successful bond campaign and the completion of the school will have an influence far beyond the school grounds. “I truly believe this investment in the school facilities will continue be a catalyst not only for academic improvement, but a larger positive community impact.”

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 2 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.