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City as Classroom

“His research led him to one overwhelming conclusion, published in a seminal paper in 1975: big cities nurture subcultures much more effectively than suburbs or small towns.”

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Last June, as school was winding down, I was standing on the porch of Building 1 when a family walked up and asked if they could see the building. I (incorrectly) assumed they were interested in the school, so I asked about the age of their children. They interrupted me with some laughter and said, “You don’t understand. We were married in this very building 25 years ago.” I, of course let them in, walked them up to the Loft and gave them space to reminisce, take some photos, and feel some emotions.

High School Math Guide Kelly Dickens has a deep appreciation of our location, and his comment below reminds me of some of the best thinking that exists about “place-based education.” Here’s Kelly’s view:

“In the last decade or so, I have spent a lot of time studying local source documents (city council minutes, directories, old postcards, applications for historic designations of property, etc.), mostly from about 1880-1930. When I walk around our campus, I see the ghosts of the families who lived in these houses, who rode the trolley up Rio Grande, who visited the amusement parks at Deep Eddy and Hyde Park. This part of Austin is rich in history, and I feel that richness and share what I know about it with students and colleagues. Here I feel connected to the past and future.”

And here’s an anecdote from Art Guide John Mulvany describing how he has already used the downtown area with his students:

Art and the urban classroom

“I’m so glad you are coming! Just let yourselves in; the gate is open. Make sure to look in the hutches in the back. Two of the rabbits gave birth last night and there are 12 baby rabbits in there.”

It’s a freezing cold morning in December. I am talking on the phone with my neighbor Dorsey Barger, owner of Hausbar Farm before taking my high school art class on a field trip. Hausbar farm, home to two donkeys, hundreds of chickens, dozens of rabbits, some geese, a few ducks, three pet birds, two humans, and lots of fresh air and sunshine, supplies many of the city’s restaurants with produce.

This is one of several field trips I have taken to Hausbar with students for various art projects. The farm is less than 15 mins drive from our downtown campus and has provided our students with unique access to beautiful urban farmland as a resource for painting, drawing and photography projects over the last several years. At our end-of-year debrief, many students cite their field trip to Hausbar Farm and the art projects our visit inspired as a highlight of the year. Dorsey loves having our students visit the farm and has shared our students’ artwork on the Hausbar Instagram and Facebook sites. Our school’s proximity to the farm allows our students a unique opportunity to connect with nature only a short drive from our central Austin campus.

Other great art resources and field-trips within walking or short driving distance from our school:

The Blanton museum (25-minute walk)
Women and their Work (20-minute walk)
Davis Gallery (15-minute walk)
The Contemporary (20-minute walk)
The Faulk Library (3-minute walk)
Texas Memorial Museum (10-minute drive)


When I think about embracing our downtown location, my “teacher brain” runs wild. There is both a freedom and a responsibility that comes with owning–we can now imagine five years out, ten years out. It’s not that we couldn’t have done this before, but now there’s an intention and intensity to some questions, as there is when you own a home. Some of the questions focus on the house itself and some (the more fun ones for me) focus on what it might come to mean. I have asked some of those below, and I’m curious to hear what some of yours might be.

  • How did the street come to be named Rio Grande?
  • How old are the magnificent live oaks?
  • Who has lived in Building 2, what was it used for, and why is it considered historic?
  • Is it true that Earl Campbell sold barbecue sauce out of Building 5?
  • Did Whole Foods really come to life in Building 1?

What other questions do you have about these buildings and this campus? I would love to hear your feedback–please reach out to me at

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