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Texas Tree Foundation Makes ‘Cool Schools’

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Texas Tree Foundation's "Cool Schools" program aims to create a fun and engaging outdoor learning area for teachers and students. | Image by Texan by Nature

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The private nonprofit Texas Trees Foundation is working with North Texas schools to upgrade their greenspaces.

The foundation’s “Cool Schools” program aims to create a fun and engaging outdoor learning area for teachers and students.

Samantha Bradley is the Cool Schools program manager who has worked on 30 school campuses across Dallas County. Seven schools are currently slated for the Cool Schools treatment this fall.

“Our program works directly with expanding the tree canopy coverage and outdoor learning spaces as well as encouraging environmental stewardship through curriculum, tree planting initiatives, and different things with students on campuses,” said Bradley, speaking with The Dallas Express.

The vision for each campus is customizable in the Cool School program. The foundation works with administrators, teachers, and students to create spaces that fit their needs.

“A lot of times when we go on campus, not only does it lack actual trees but also tree canopies,” said Bradly. “We found that 70% of campuses had 7% or less canopy, and it’s recommended that you have 20 to 30% minimum. The city’s goal should be 40% overall.”

While canopies are just one element campuses need, Lannie McClelen, project coordinator for the Southwestern Medical Streetscape and Park project, stressed that biodiversity is also essential:

“Certain trees are overused, they’re not native, and not only will there be trees in the front of the school and no trees in the back of the school where students want to play, but additionally, there may only be three to four species [planted], and if a disease comes through, they may not sustain.”

To create a healthy space, the Texas Trees Foundation plants 15 to 20 trees of various species to create biodiversity. Students would learn about different trees and why they were selected for their campus.

“Just like how the diversity of humans is so important and the importance of having different people with different skills and [why] we’re better as a diverse culture, it’s the same thing with trees. We need biodiversity within the urban forests and see the school as a microclimate and its own little forest within it,” said Bradley.

As for how students benefit from more trees, Bradley stated, “There’s something so special when we plant trees, and they are available to students. We create amenities around them, like seating nooks and social-emotional elements, where kids can wander and play around the trees. You start to see that’s what they gravitate towards over even some of the playground equipment and instead prefer to be under the tree and explore nature.”

The impact of greenspace on education also has a surprising correlation. A study out of Massachusetts found that more “greenness” on campus can reduce chronic absenteeism in schools, a problem Dallas ISD is currently struggling with.

During the 2019-2020 school year, Dallas ISD clocked a chronic absenteeism rate of 10%, significantly higher than the statewide rate of 6.7%.

The district also left something to be desired in terms of student outcomes — the percentage of 3rd-6th grade DISD students who “mastered grade level” on the STAAR was below the state average for every single test in 2021.

As reported in The Dallas Express, North Texas has been reaching record high temperatures the last couple of months. The Cool School program would give students a little more cover in the face of an unrelenting summer.

McClelen pointed to the 2016 Dallas Urban Report, which detailed the city’s hottest areas. The report identified the medical district and school grounds as the hottest “heat islands” with the least canopy. This report helped the Texas Trees Foundation approach schools with its tree-planting initiative.

Bradley said her favorite day by far is planting day with the children, where they plant trees using a design they all helped to create.

“One [planting] example at Reinhardt Elementary, students expressed they wanted a circle of trees. There’s like 12 redbuds in a circle, and you watch the kids as they go inside of it, and it’s like their little tree circle, and that’s what they wanted, so that’s what they got,” Bradley said.

The children named the trees, and the younger kids got to spread mulch around them.

“It’s just a great day where you feel proud of what you’ve accomplished,” exclaimed Bradley. “These trees are going to be here in 20 years, and it’s hard to believe as a 10-year-old to talk to them about their kids, but like they’re gonna be able to take their kids to see this tree someday. It’s really exciting!”

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