When the Grass is Greener… /news/when-the-grass-is-greener-grades-are-better/

    Caprock High School groundskeeper Barbara Hatchel in the CHS courtyard under a Russian Olive tree

    Bees are the foundation of our lives because they do so much pollinating.” Talk nature with Barbara Hatchel and it doesn’t take long to get her buzzing about her rosy perspective on life, her career and the role she plays in preparing Amarillo ISD students for success beyond high school.

    Much like the bees she so appreciates, as the groundskeeper at Caprock High School, Barbara’s laborious work ethic and attention to detail keep the campus pollinated with precisely pruned trees and shrubs and meticulously manicured lawns. “Every time I go outside, especially in the spring, something new has happened. I get to experience a miracle every day.”  Even in the winter—with rain, snow and sleet–Barbara still manages to find her Zen somewhere on the sprawling campus.  “Oh yeah,” she laughs. “I’m better than the postman.”

    And what Barbara delivers is just as important. A certified Texas master gardener, certified turf professional, certified grounds technician, and nationally recognized certified grounds manager, Barbara is about as credentialed as grounds gurus get. A pristinely packaged landscape, she says, cultivates more productive students. “I want it to look crisp and sharp,” says Barbara. “The first thing you see is the landscape and, if it’s kept up like it should be, you’ll have a better learning situation because students and teachers will be able to come out and take a deep breath.”

    It sounds clichéd, but there is actual science behind the benefits of stopping to smell the roses. In recent years, researchers have set their sights on the role of a high school campus landscape in student performance. A number of studies have identified a link between campus views of trees, shrubs and flowers and higher test scores and graduation rates among high school students. In fact, University of Illinois research outlined in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning used skin conductance and body temperature to measure physiological stress levels of students. Those with a green view from a classroom window had better focus, test performance, and stress recovery.

    Elevating Caprock’s expansive lawns to something of serenity for staff and students is a big job. Barbara’s strategy is to divide and conquer, breaking down each section of the landscape into “parks.” One park is edged and maintained daily. Then Barbara tends to details, melding artistry with expertise. “Trimming trees is like doing a sculpture. You trim a little and step back and look, and then you do it again. But it’s also necessary for safety,” says Barbara, referencing the storied accident that left Texas Governor Greg Abbott partially paralyzed when a limb snapped off a large oak tree as he jogged beneath it. Another daily task on the large campus is keeping litter contained, but Barbara says Caprock’s 1,800 students generally don’t mess with their school.  “Sometimes students come and help me. They thank me for what I’m doing. It’s like a little family here.”

    Family is the bedrock of Barbara’s interest in landscaping. Her mother introduced her to gardening, her father taught her about management and a childhood neighbor gave Barbara her first seed to plant. Today, Barbara is a respected grounds manager, not just in AISD, but within the small world of the field’s professional organizations. She attends yearly conventions of the Professional Grounds Management Society in Louisville, picking up trade secrets for a garden variety of dilemmas—everything from dealing with pesky bindweed to simpler ways of snow removal. And recently, Barbara was asked to present her leadership philosophy and the acronym “ROAR” (code for Responsibility, Ownership, Accessibility and Respectability) which she coined, to the University Landscape Managers Association.

    The message, loud and clear, was about pride and respect, something deeply rooted at Caprock, where Barbara is mindful of the role she plays in growing graduates who are ready for success. “I have the first impression, so I try to create the best first impression. It makes people feel safer and better,” says Barbara. “I work for the students and staff. I’m trying to make their environment better. And it’s fun.”

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