Trio Creates Habitat for Learning with New Charter School Near Trinity

  • Michael Hooten is CEO and superintendent of the Trinity Environmental Academy. Hooten graduated from UT Dallas in 1998 with a bachelor's degree from the Naveen Jindal School of Management.

Nature hikes are part of the curriculum at a new charter school founded by three UT Dallas alumni.

The Trinity Environmental Academy, near the Great Trinity Forest in southern Dallas County, uses its surroundings to teach hands-on lessons about science and other subjects.

The school sits on the campus of Paul Quinn College, where the students can explore plants and creatures along a creek that feeds into the Trinity River or work in the organic garden that replaced the college’s football field.

The academy is the vision of a group of science teachers who wanted to use nature as a living laboratory for lessons on environmentalism and sustainability. Three of the school’s leaders have UT Dallas ties.

Michael Hooten BS’98, the academy’s CEO and superintendent, graduated from the Naveen Jindal School of Management. Jennifer Hoag MAT’08, chief academic officer, earned her degree in the Science/Mathematics Education Program in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Dhriti Stocks MPA’15, board vice president and director, graduated from the Master of Public Affairs program in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences in December.

After earning his business degree, Hooten transitioned into teaching and leadership roles at North Texas charter schools that focused on underserved communities. Opening the academy gave him the chance to share his love of the outdoors with students, some of whom have had little exposure to topics such as environmental stewardship and sustainability.

“A lot of kids grow up fearing nature as opposed to appreciating it,” he said.

As a board member, Stocks said she has had many opportunities to use what she has learned about budgeting and human resources, especially from a course she took on education policy.

“The (education policy) course mirrored everything I had learned up until that point about the education system, prepared me for some of the challenges we would face, and definitely helped the team avoid some pitfalls we could easily have been mired in,” she said.

“It also opened up a whole new dimension in terms of board service, because it placed all the required board training into a larger context, which has been invaluable to me.”

As chief academic officer, Hoag said her math and science education courses at UT Dallas have helped her connect STEM concepts to students’ everyday lives.

“I knew my students learned best by ‘doing’ science, not just by reading about it or watching it. The UT Dallas courses provided the research-based best practices that allowed me to put it into action,” she said.

During one of their recent nature walks, first-graders at the academy carried a list of items they had to search for. A frog about the size of a quarter quickly captured their attention.

“You found something on our checklist,” said their teacher, Liz Webster.  Students checked off the item “something brown.” By the end of the walk, students had checked off everything on their lists. It was just the type of lesson the school’s founders envisioned.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].