News that made a difference for Texas students

In the first week of this new year, we want to look back at some of the most consequential education stories—for both public schools and alternative schools—in Texas in 2016. As we look back, we see three major political flashpoints, and also some promising trends and innovations growing out of the alternative school scene in our area. Both flashpoints and innovations are listed below, with links for finding out more information about each.

Political Flashpoints

  • At the moment we were compiling this list, the Austin American-Statesman published a report revealing that “School districts across Texas pulled in lackluster preliminary grades under the state’s new letter-grade accountability system.” The new system, which won’t be fully implemented until next year, is based primarily on standardized testing and got a lot of complaints and pushback from school districts—including Austin ISD—even before the preliminary grades were released. Looks like this grading system will be an issue to watch going forward into 2017 and beyond.
  • August 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragedy of the sniper attack on UT’s campus, the first modern-day mass shooting. August also marked the beginning of so-called “campus carry” at Texas’s public colleges.
  • A series of investigative pieces by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the Texas Education Agency may have mandated low special education enrollment in public schools, leading to the denial of crucial services for many children and saving the state billions. The investigations are ongoing.

Trends in Alternative Education around Austin

If there are trends or major issues in Texas education you want to see explored on our blog, let us know in the comments below, and we’ll make an effort to address them in 2017. Here’s to a happy new year for all Texas kids!

Caring and community: Bringing nature to the center in Austin preschools

Our environment is our teacher, play is our work, and our learning happens naturally.
—Wendy Calderón, The Dragonfly Forest

I want the children to feel powerful through kindness to others and connection to nature.
—Nicole Haladyna, Woodland Schoolhouse

So much of learning in schools is inside, sedentary, and screen-based. . . . I worry that preparedness has taken precedence over play. Our school and other great ones like it have reorganized these priorities.
—Britt Luttrell, Nature’s Way Preschool

Environmental education and nature-based preschools—sometimes called “forest schools”—are expanding across the globe. The movement is so strong in North America now that this summer hundreds of educators will gather at a conference to share their knowledge and present their research and experiences. I wanted to know more about the varieties of nature-based preschools in Austin, so I interviewed a few educators with different perspectives and many shared goals.

Wendy Calderón is the founder of The Dragonfly Forest in Cedar Park, which is just one year old and enrolls ages 3 to 5 in a program that includes Spanish and English language learning.





Nicole Haladyna started Woodland Schoolhouse in Travis Heights in 2014. The Schoolhouse enrolls children 3-1/2 to 5 years old in a program inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach.





Britt Luttrell teaches at the City of Austin’s Nature’s Way Preschool, which was founded way back in 1992 at the Austin Nature & Science Center. It’s part of the city’s initiative to educate young people and families about environmental stewardship, and it enrolls kids 3 to 5 years old.




Tell us a little about what inspired you to become a nature-based educator.

Wendy: My biggest inspiration is my daughter, who is two years old. I was teaching at the KIPP Comunidad school and loved it, but after my daughter was born, I decided I wanted to create an environment where she could grow and explore nature—and that idea transformed into Dragonfly Forest school, with a lot of support from family and friends. I started with summer camps, then a few months later I was fully enrolled. I never saw myself as a business owner, but isn’t it beautiful how our children impact us everyday?!

Nicole: I was teaching at a more traditional school, but I sometimes looked longingly into a forest area where the kids were not allowed to go. One day we did a special project searching for a particular tree, and it was the best day ever. Then I stumbled across a video about one of the forest schools in Sweden. It was so moving that it actually brought me to tears—and that told me that nature education was what I needed to be doing. After that, I worked at the Discovery School and learned a lot about a nature-based curriculum, and all the right procedures, and how to transport kids, and was able to transition to my own school from there.

Britt: I grew up in Austin and have seen it change, so I value green spaces in a bustling, urban environment. I want to show children of all interests and comfort levels that there’s something outside for them to enjoy. Our school is unique in its location because it isn’t in a forest or state park. There are highways, traffic, and towering city buildings.  I want kids and their families to know the benefits of nature play and that even the tiniest green space can accelerate physical, emotional, and social development.


Could you describe a typical day at your school?

Wendy: We start each day with morning circle, singing songs and reading. We do our math by counting chicken eggs and then the kids often play in the “mud kitchen.” They have tea parties and make cakes and they just love to jump in the puddles and make mud angels. They’re dirty and happy. We might then go into the garden and sing into watering cans to explore changes in our voices, then water plants, and turn the compost. Then we go to our meadow and forest to play pretend games and climb trees—and look for deer. After lunch, we have art, music, and a yoga game that’s like Simon Says, where I call out a pose and students imitate it.

Nicole: Each day is so different, but for example: We might start out inside with an hour of free play with play-dough or rocks and minerals or dress-up clothes. Recently some kids wanted to play ninjas, so we pulled materials out of the closet, and after about 30 minutes they had created costumes with gloves and shoes made of masking tape and ribbon. They got so involved in the creation of the costumes, they forgot about the game! We always go for a hike to a few usual spots by a creek to look at turtles and birds. The kids climb on rocks and jump in the water, balancing and learning to use their whole bodies. They make pretend salads with leaves and berries. Afterward, we’ll have a resting time when they can draw, write, or read—but a lot of them sleep after all that activity.

Britt: We start our day with an hour of social conflict time in our play yard. We purposefully design our environment with too few items: trucks, bamboo shafts, trees to climb. This facilitates cooperation and the right kind of social conflict—in a large school group representing multiple ages and experience levels. All the kids have a short, 15-minute community time inside with their teacher. We meet live animal visitors, including snakes, lizards, and rabbits that the kids get to touch and hold. This is also our sensory exploration time, with multiple bins set up with things like bird seed, sand, and bones. Every group hikes every single day, even in tricky weather. Our three-year-olds might just take a walk around the school at first, but by the end of the year they go as far as the limestone caves on our preserve.


What would you like each child to take away from your school and nature-based education when they leave?

Wendy: I would love for the children to leave the school with a knowledge, love, and understanding of nature and their environment. And I would like them to be able to impart that knowledge to their friends and families. But I also want them to leave with the tools they need to be successful in their next school: the ability to participate and know that their ideas are valued, to share and be good friends with others, and to always be interested in learning and growing outdoors.

Nicole: I really want the children to leave with keen observation skills. We’re constantly asking: “I wonder why . . .” I want them to continue to ask increasingly complex questions and remain curious throughout their lives. But I also want them to consider themselves helpers and agents of change—to realize that the outdoor spaces belong to everyone—and to know that even as young people they can make a positive change. That’s pretty powerful.

Britt: We are not trying to create the next park rangers, animal rehabbers, or nature educators at Nature’s Way. While these outcomes are wonderful, we know that many of our students will go on to incredible futures in science, math, politics, parenting, entrepreneurship, art, athletics, and more. I would like each child to leave our program with confidence in his or her own abilities, and with the feeling of community. I hope their minds are prepped for endless curiosity, not just the ability to hold information. 


Many thanks to all the educators for sharing their ideas. All three schools offer summer camp programs as well as school-year enrollment. And you can follow them on Facebook for updates and more information:

The Dragonfly Forest on Facebook

Woodland Schoolhouse on Facebook

Austin Nature & Science Center on Facebook


Shelley Sperry

How should a four-year-old spend her day?

Nicole Haladyna has a great passion for the outdoors and has been teaching in natural environments for years. She founded the Woodland Schoolhouse, where she is currently enrolling children 3-1/2 to 5 years old. In this guest essay for Alt Ed Austin, Nicole provides a sparkling window into the world of Woodland kids.

The morning after the downpour, we hike to our favorite creek and check out “our waterfall.” The air is fresh and damp. Some of us sit in a meditative-like state, arms wrapped around knees, watching water flow over rocks. Some scale the surrounding embankments seeking a higher perspective. Others crouch, carefully collecting small fossils or making fairy houses.

Whispers and giggles are muffled by the moving water.  We notice the discarded insects beneath a spider’s web and ask each other “How?” and “Why?” Then we retrieve our sketch pads and draw what we see. We shake wet branches and pretend it’s raining as their leaves empty upon us.

New discoveries are always welcome, but there is something more profound about knowing a place. Really knowing a place. In our short lives we’ve been here so many times—not just visited but been here with all of our senses.

We’ve felt this place weather the seasons. We know its sounds when brisk or icy. We know its voice when the air hangs still and hot. We’ve crunched on its leaves, sipped its raindrops. We’ve watched its caterpillars descend from the trees and reappear as delicate butterflies and moths. We’ve buried our hands in this gritty soil. We’ve dipped our bare feet in these creeks. We’ve observed how buds spring from the tiniest twigs and transform into lush leaves in only a matter of days. We’ve snuck up on deer—so many deer!—beneath our special tree. We’ve discovered their bones beneath the fallen leaves. We witness signs of birth and death every day, and we embrace it all. We seek to understand it all.  

Every child deserves to have such an intimate relationship with the natural world.  This sense of place does not develop through periodic field trips but with learning and loving one place first.  Holding and protecting a place and its inhabitants so dearly, knowing it isn’t yours at all: this is the most beautiful lesson in sharing, empathy, and gratitude. 

Much of our curriculum at Woodland Schoolhouse derives from our inspirations, and in this place, inspiration and wonder envelop us. There are countless creatures, relationships, landforms, and concepts here worthy of in-depth study. We re-create our findings in paint, clay, pencil, and more. We document our questions and make a plan for learning answers.

In pursuit of these higher objectives, unintended lessons abound. We bump into each other, intellectually and physically, and practice navigating these conflicts constructively. Without the rigid time constraints so often present in a preschool schedule, we take our time and really get to the bottom of the issue. We’re eager to master basic mathematical concepts when they’ll help us confirm exactly how many tadpoles are here today versus last week, or how high that deer had to reach to eat the fruit from that branch. Writing is meaningful when we’re drawing and labeling animal tracks we’ve discovered or dictating a letter to our grandmother about the bird’s nest we found . . . and how we can’t wait to see her again.

We do not need to be pushed or coerced into learning. We must be trusted, supported, and inspired. 

Can you think of a better way for a four-year-old to spend her day?

I can’t.

Nicole Haladyna


Julia’s Garden reopens on an urban farm oasis

In this guest post from Katherine Parlette, you’ll learn about Julia’s Garden, a Montessori program in the heart of Travis Heights where young people will have the opportunity to grow and thrive right alongside the garden plants they tend.

Welcome to Julia’s Garden! Or, for some of you, welcome back. This year, with the construction of our first Children’s House, we are concentrating on a nature-based Montessori curriculum. The home space we will be teaching the classes from is an urban farmland conveniently located in South Central Austin. It’s a place where city kids can benefit from getting their hands dirty, seeing the process of where and how their food is grown, and helping harvest, prepare, and serve it in their very own “house.”

Children who are coming into their third and fourth years of life are in their sensitive periods for reading and writing. Many programs offer a chance to explore nature, exposure to languages, and music and/or arts and crafts activities. Although all of these things are important for the preschooler and are also part of our curriculum, what sets us apart is our AMI-trained Guides, who have the time, resources, and expertise to sit down with your three-year-old and make sure that lessons are offered at the exact point in the child’s development when he or she is ready to receive it. It’s this accountability for academic learning that makes us different from many other home-based programs.

Julia’s Garden classes will be held in the sacred space of a private home, which, through years of teaching in various environments, we have found to be young children’s preferred kind of space for absorbing knowledge. Traditional school buildings in commercial settings are not ideal places for small children to spend their formative years. Vinyl flooring, fluorescent lights, and limited outside time all go against the child’s natural tendencies to learn through their senses and through movement. Plastic toys, unbreakable dishes, and padding send the message that children are clumsy and not to be trusted.

In contrast, AMI Montessori environments are lovingly prepared with materials that are pleasing to touch and to see. The Children’s House, or “Casa de Bambini,” as Dr. Maria Montessori called her first classroom, is a true home for children where they can work, play, and take ownership of their environment. Having access to materials made from nature, like wood and wool, show respect for young children and in turn help them develop respect for and knowledge about nature. Items made of ceramic and glass help children learn balance, patience, and responsibility. The result of this approach is a confident and capable child.

In our backyard, where nature leads the way, children are able to develop concrete language and fine motor skills literally from the ground up. In a garden classroom, touch, taste, smell, and sound allow them to fully take in the world around them. Harvesting their own ingredients teaches respect for food, and learning the process by which it arrives at our table helps avoid future battles around nutrition and eating disorders in the teenage years.

Gardening also builds important life and survival skills that will assist in your child’s development all the way into her adult years. In the fall, the children will have the opportunity to harvest the summer crop and prepare snacks made from organic ingredients. Simultaneously, they will be preparing the winter garden. We will talk about which vegetables and fruits grow best in our climate in the winter months and choose our favorites as a class. Then we will plant them together and continue to water them and weed the garden in order to truly see how an organic garden grows. Composting is also a big part of our daily regime: all food we do not consume goes into the compost bin so that children see the importance of recycling and that nothing goes to waste.

Julia’s Garden is a community-based class program. We encourage parents to help us in the garden and form adult friendships. Montessori is a family, and the mixed ages give the children opportunities to be teachers as well as students. We bring children into our Primary classroom before age 3 so that they can remain with the same teacher for a longer stretch of time. Having fewer transitions to work through during this tender time means more space for growing and learning in the environment. It also means that there are no delays in the child’s education from toileting training setbacks. By starting children at school in the midst of their process, we can help them to become successful at independent toileting well before their third birthday.

There’s a lot “growing on” at Julia’s Garden in 2014! Come and see for yourself or visit our website. We hope to see you soon!

Katherine Parlette, AMI M.Ed.