Baker Koonce Life Lab Program

Written by Kay Hubbard.

A Collaborative Masterpiece Where Learning Grows

CISD Education Foundation Grants: 'Oh, the Places You'll Go!'

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series about some CISD Education Foundation grants from which local students, teachers, and campuses receive such great benefit. It is amazing to see what can be done with these resources donated by generous people in our community when placed in the hands of teachers who think and dream big!


The Life Lab Program—A Classroom without Walls” is an experiential outdoor social and emotional learning program that provides all fourth grade students at Baker Koonce Intermediate School the opportunity to apply essential knowledge learned in science, math, and language arts within a nontraditional setting.  The Baker Koonce School Garden is the main “classroom” for all program experiences. Unique to the program is the program’spartnership with Panola College Occupational Therapy Assistant students, who serve as one-on-one mentors for each student attending. At its core, Life Lab inspires children to have a love for learning, an appreciation for healthy foods, and a connection with the natural world.  

Valuing the power of the natural environment for the learning process, then-principal Jason Harris began the first steps toward creating an outdoor classroom area at BK in 2014. He wrote and was awarded a CISD Education Foundation grant to create a 20x20-foot covered area with colorful sturdy seating, located between two school building wings behind the cafeteria. The intent of the project was to encourage teachers to get students out of the classroom and into the natural environment as much as possible.

Mr. Harris wanted to expand the nontraditional learning environment and began discussions with Terrie King, an occupational therapist, licensed professional counselor, and instructor and academic fieldwork coordinator in the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at Panola College. Terrie’s vision has always been to bring the most beneficial and innovative programs to individuals in our community, and she quickly saw the therapeutic and educational benefits this space could offer to students at Baker Koonce and her OTA students. Collaboratively, the two developed a social and emotional learning (SEL) pilot program which began in August 2015.

The program was especially designed to benefit children struggling academically in the traditional classroom.  Research suggests that SEL programs greatly increase academic success, and the group of boys in the program quickly proved the research.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) at Yale University, “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Terrie adds, “It helps children answer the question: How can I be a good citizen, and what does that look like in a community?”

The SEL program implemented for that first pilot program included a curriculum that used drumming as a hands-on learning activity to apply the SEL concepts.  As the group of 12 boys participated in the 10-week program, there was an impressive 50% reduction in disciplinary reports for them.  Based on these results and the students’ comments about how much the group helped them, Mr. Harris suggested that every student could benefit from an SEL program, and a grant was submitted to the CISD Education Foundation for the 2016-2017 school year to begin the BK Life Lab Program.

Beginning in the fall of 2016, the first BK Life Lab pilot program was implemented for ALL of the fourth grade students, under Terrie’s direction. Participants met once a week for six weeks, with activities focused on the core concepts of the SEL model. To support each Life Lab student’s success, a partnership was established with Terrie’s students in the Panola College Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) Program to provide a strong mentorship opportunity during each weekly session. The children were eager to attend, and carryover of program concepts was observed from week to week within the traditional classroom settings.

What makes Life Lab so unique and motivating for the students is that the SEL model and also math, science, language arts, and social studies concepts are all applied through many hands-on experiential activities such as teambuilding challenges and creative arts.  Through the applied concepts and activities, the students are able to better integrate strategies for creating healthy life habits, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills. Each student is encouraged to keep a Life Lab Journal throughout the program, incorporating handouts, reflection writing, drawings, memory pictures, and peer encouragement messages.      

During the spring of 2017, what started as a simple discussion about healthy food with the children soon blossomed into an amazing adventure of discovery and learning for all involved—the school garden project. The most surprising thing was the overwhelming interest and creativity the children had for the project. The tendency of kids today to have great interest in video games, television, and cell phones made it uncertain how they might respond to the homegrown idea of gardening, but it was a great hit.

By the end of the 2016-2017 school year, more than 200 fourth grade students had participated in the BK Life Lab program with the development of the school garden a major project accomplishment. The students worked together, with the help of their OTA buddies, to incorporate math, science, and problem solving skills to design four garden planting areas: Fruits and Berries; Herbs and Edible Flowers; The Garden Artist; and The Veggie Patch. The children eagerly learned how to use a tape measure and graph paper to draw the garden layout. They worked hard together to pull weeds, break up the soil, set the raised garden beds, shovel dirt, and push a heavy wheelbarrow to fill the garden beds. The children’s level of motivation to accomplish the challenging tasks was inspiring. It was a gift to see the students experience the value of completing hard work together as a team, which in turn created great pride and ownership for the garden space. There are now 16 raised cedar garden beds and a beautiful 12’x20’ cedar greenhouse, which will support year-round garden learning opportunities for many years to come. A local non-profit organization, New Destinations, Inc., which specializes in building wheelchair ramps and installing other home safety modifications, installed a floor and constructed a wheelchair ramp for the greenhouse so that it is accessible and safe for all students.

The Baker Koonce Organic School Garden was born!  

The ability to keep the huge garden well-watered is a significant challenge, so research began about how to implement a water catchment system. The Panola Water Conservation District heard of the need and collaborated with Tyson Foods, who generously donated funds to purchase a 350-gallon water reservoir with a pump which will enable a drip irrigation system to each garden bed. Installation of the water catchment has been a learning experience, and gathering community knowledge and support for how best to install the system is an ongoing goal.

After such a positive outcome with the first Fourth Grade Life Lab Program, a second grant was submitted to the Education Foundation for the 2017-2018 school year with hopes of continuing the good work established in the BK Life Lab program. Fortunately, the Foundation once again saw the value and additional funding was provided once again for the 2017-2018 school year.

New principal Clarinda Collins continued the tremendous administrative support that had been offered from the beginning, and this year, three classroom teachers dedicated one day a week to the Life Lab program and got to experience the benefits of Life Lab. Each week, Mrs. West, Mrs. Martin, and Mrs. Patty brought all their students to the garden as part of their language arts class time. The children were able to apply concepts learned in the classroom in the garden. In addition, science, math, and social studies concepts were applied throughout the program as well. The children studied how the Iroquois Native Americans planted “sister gardens” of corn, squash and pole beans, experienced the effects of sun and soil conditions, researched helpful and hurtful insects and animals found in the garden, and documented plant life cycles by starting seed beds in the early spring in the greenhouse and watching them grow later in the garden beds. This year the students were able to harvest some cold weather crops such as broccoli and cabbage.

The garden continues now into the summer, with produce soon ready for harvest.  The children planted tomatoes, eggplant, squash, peppers, corn, green beans, strawberries, and blueberries.  Because the garden is organic, companion planting is a must, so growing alongside the veggies are orange and yellow marigolds. A beautiful herb garden is developing as well, with chocolate mint, sage, rosemary, dill, cilantro, and lavender. Knowing the harvest season would come during their summer break months, the children decided that they would like the harvested food to be donated to Mission Carthage.

Terrie says, “This is not ‘just a garden.’ The children learn so much more than just how to plant vegetables. There are constant opportunities for self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making through creating and completing each garden task. The power of a healthy and positive relationship is a key aspect of everyone’s social and emotional learning experience, and that is what the Panola College OTA students bring to the table. They have the unique ability to create a strong one-on-one mentorship relationship with their buddy as they are sharing garden tasks and other Life Lab activities.”

She continues, “The OTA students benefit as well from participating in Life Lab, as the mentorship experience is a part of their educational program in which they get to apply classroom concepts in real working world environments. Occupational therapy’s main goal is to help people be able to engage in a meaningful life. Occupational therapists support individuals to overcome whatever barriers—physical, emotional, social, or learning-related struggles—that that are getting in the way of living a productive life. These students are definitely working in this capacity at Life Lab, and Life Lab would not be the same without them. I’ve been practicing OT for 30 years, and it is an honor to pass on the joy of this profession to the next generation of OT practitioners!”

The future of the garden is bright, with two much-needed additions coming to the garden this summer—an 8x10-foot garden tool shed and the long-awaited and much-needed installation of the water gardening irrigation system. Through generous donations from Paul Cain at Cain Hardware and Wal-Mart Community Grant funds, as well as a partnership with Isha Brown, Program Director for Community in Schools, materials were obtained for lumber for the shed and PVC pipe for the water catchment irrigation system purchased earlier through the generous funds donated by Tyson Foods. The addition of the water catchment system will drastically improve the overall garden success, and the tool shed will support proper care of the garden tools.

Both projects will be part of the Life Lab learning process. A local carpenter, Marshal Heusted, has graciously offered to guide a group of Life Lab boys who have volunteered to help this summer in constructing the garden tool shed.  Mr. Heustead stated, “When I was a young man, someone took the time to teach me a trade, and I hope that the time I spend with these boys teaching basic carpentry skills will support them in the future as well.”

With so much amazing growth and development of the BK Life Lab Program, a third grant was submitted to the Education Foundation for the 2018-2019 school year. Thankfully, the Foundation once again saw the value of the program, and funding was awarded.  Terrie says, “Goals for the next school year include adding worm composting and a weather tracking station, as well as inclusion of students from the fifth and sixth grade. A big goal for the program is to create a sustaining small business enterprise that the students at BK develop and manage. We would also love to have even more community involvement: people to sponsor various areas of the garden to help fund garden supplies, repairs, and upkeep, elders who can share their wisdom about gardening, perhaps even a master gardener student(s) who is searching for a project. The American Dream is still very much alive and like a seed, it must be nurtured in each of our children!”