Wisconsin public schools national leaders for environmental education
Students at Fox River Academy need the usual supplies expected of any elementary and middle schoolers — a backpack, pencils, a notebook or two — but they also need a pair of boots, a raincoat and a willingness to get their hands dirty.
On any given Thursday, it isn’t unusual to find the kindergarten to eighth-grade students at the Appleton environmental charter school digging in the dirt or running down to the ravine near the school on the edge of Pierce Park for an outdoor excursion. In April, for example, the students spent a day outside building a hugelkultur garden — a self-sustaining garden bed made from plant debris.
They were collecting broken tree limbs and fallen leaves to strategically pile onto a freshly raked garden bed. While preparing the ground, the students found worm after worm after worm. The younger students at one point found so many worms they made a “worm family.”
Fox River Academy is just one example of the hundreds of green and healthy schools that make Wisconsin a leader in environmental education and the green schools movement.
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Green and Healthy Schools are defined by three goals: reducing environmental impact, improving health and wellness and environmental literacy. Often, green schools are environmental charter schools with project-based curriculum. Teachers say this gives students more ownership and autonomy in their education and integrates traditional subjects with environmental education.
Other green and healthy schools use traditional teaching models and curriculum, but have taken steps to be more environmentally friendly with building upgrades such as updating HVAC systems.
The initiative is supported on a state level by the state Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Public Instruction.
The state’s program is aligned with the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools program, and schools can achieve different rankings based on how extensive their efforts are.
A 100-year-old school will have different resources and needs than a brand new LEED certified school, but that doesn’t mean they can’t both make green efforts.
“We believe all schools can be green and healthy schools,” said Victoria Rydberg, environmental education consultant for DPI.
Wisconsin’s long history with green education and large presence on the national stage
Nearly 300 Wisconsin schools have been recognized as Green and Healthy Schools, but Rydberg said there could be closer to 1,000 in the state that are doing green and healthy activities whether it be composting or planting gardens or water conservation efforts.
After a school moves up to the highest level in the state-level green and healthy schools program, it’s eligible to be nominated for the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools award, created in 2011 to spotlight innovative environmental practices at schools.
There isn’t a financial incentive from the state or national recognition programs, but green schools can see benefits such as reduced energy costs, reduced absenteeism and improved mental health of staff and students, Rydberg said.
Each year, a state can submit up to six nominations for individual schools, districts and a post-secondary institution. Many states submit two or fewer, but Andrea Falken, director of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program, said Wisconsin nominates four, five or even the full six each year.
“Wisconsin honorees are really strong,” she said. “They are doing great work.”
Wisconsin’s Green Ribbon schools can be found across the state. They are in the state’s biggest districts in Milwaukee and Madison, and also in much smaller districts like Washington Island and the Menominee Indian School District.
Falken said she points to Wisconsin and California as examples whenever she is giving advice to a state that’s looking to grow its green schools. Some will tell her that it’s hard to get kids outside and engage in nature when it’s cold out. Wisconsin does it, she tells them.
Environmental education isn’t new in Wisconsin. A state law introduced conservation education in 1935 and 50 years later Wisconsin added interdisciplinary environmental education requirements to the curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Standards for environmental education have been updated over the years, most recently, most recently in 2018. The seven standards are designed to be integrated in lessons across all subjects – not just science – in all grades. They include observing and questioning their surroundings and wellbeing, engaging in experiences to promote sustainability, and evaluating how natural and cultural systems depend on each other, interact with each other, adapt and change, and how they are influenced by diversity.
Here’s a closer look at some of Wisconsin’s green schools.
Fox River Academy
When Joann Kasper tells people about Fox River Academy, where she’s a middle school teacher, she usually explains that it isn’t a traditional school where children sit at their desks all day.
“We are out in the community, outside, doing things to help improve the environment and the community we live in,” she said.
The students at Fox River Academy are taught to be problem-solvers and good stewards of the environment around them. They often work across age-groups, with seventh and eighth graders mentoring and teaching the younger students in kindergarten through second grade.
This year, Kasper let her seventh and eighth graders decide which activities they would do to improve the environment. They decided to pick up litter and pull invasive plants.
“It’s not that we’re making them,” Kasper said. “This is their choice.”
Kasper’s students enjoy using the tools that come with environmental trades, such as a Biltmore Stick for measuring trees. It gives them hands-on experiences for jobs, such as forestry, that they could pursue in the future.
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But her students also find value in being able to spend time outside quietly journaling. For many of them, it can be an effective way to reduce stress.
In the winter, Kasper said, it’s best to go outside when there’s snow because the students can look at mammal tracks and talk about how animals survive the cold months. There are snowshoes available for the students and opportunities for cross country skiing.
Winter is also a good time to teach the students forestry skills, such as how to identify a tree by its bark rather than leaves. Sometimes the students go birding and then compare the birds they saw in the winter to the ones that migrate back to the area in the warmer months.
High Marq Environmental Charter
When Skylar Primm joined High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello in 2011, the middle and high school was in its second year after being founded by a group of parents and administrators. Primm was attracted to the job as co-lead teacher because it combined his interest in field science and teaching.
High Marq started as a high school with grades nine through 11, but last year it expanded to include sixth through 12th grades. All the students are in the same room most of the time, which creates opportunities for older students to mentor younger students.
Primm said his role is less of that of a teacher and more of an advisor. Students need to achieve their graduation requirements, so he is often coaching them through how they can attain all the necessary credits through the school’s project-based learning model.
Inside the classroom, students spend a lot of time spread across the room with their Chromebooks or other research materials for their independent projects. But no matter what projects students choose, they all spend a lot of time outside each week.
Thursdays are spent entirely outside for field projects and research. In early May, the students worked in the school garden and did soil sampling.
“For part of the day we were doing soil sampling and learning about the different characteristics of soils by doing the sampling and having the students describe the soils, not just doing a lecture,” he said.
Thursdays may also be spent on prairie restoration projects, removing invasive species or learning survival skills in the school forest.
A couple years ago, High Marq partnered with the county and another school district to make an accessible boardwalk at the Grand River Marsh Wildlands Area. This is one of Primm’s favorite projects because the students were able to see the results of their efforts in just a couple days, unlike activities like prairie restoration that don’t show immediate changes.
Since then, teachers have taken students out to the boardwalk for field days to look at ducks and see the sign with High Marq’s name on it.
Primm said one of the biggest skills High Marq students develop is a willingness to talk to people and ask for help. Students who go off to college often come back and talk about how they introduced themselves to professors and used resources such as writing centers on their campuses.
High Marq students become independent learners who can find information for themselves, while appreciating the value of collaborating with others.
“I think that the environment, the outdoors is a great context for all sorts of learning,” Primm said.
Environmental education can be a foundation for learning math and science, and is also tied in to learning social studies, English and social-emotional skills.
One of the middle schoolers is working on a project about the history of plastic that will explore how plastic usage affects the environment and economy, how it was invented and what society was like before it became so ubiquitous.
As another example, a few years ago, students worked on a project to restore biodiversity in a nearby prairie that John Muir describes plowing into farmland in his writing. Throughout the day, the students did some readings from Muir and discussed the historical importance of the space.
Reducing environmental impact is one of the more challenging areas for High Marq. With only 700 students in the school district, all students and classes are located in one building, including High Marq.
Because of that, High Marq doesn’t have as much control over sustainability in the building so it focuses on small actions students and staff can take to reduce their impact. Students monitor the recycling bins and compost when they can. Primm said they also try to walk to local parks and other nearby field sites, rather than taking a bus.
The district had a referendum a couple years ago for facility updates that included energy saving updates and replacement of the HVAC system the summer before the pandemic.
Hayward and Solon Springs school districts
Brittany Hager was first exposed to a green school when she was in middle school. She got a letter in the mail saying the Portage Community School District planned to open an environmental charter school and decided to try it.
She was a good student but was looking for a change to help her feel more connected with her teachers and peers. The environmental charter school did just that for her. It challenged her in new ways and asked her to think more deeply about what she was learning.
That school only served seventh and eighth grade students, so Hager went back to a traditional classroom for high school. But her interest didn’t wane, and she sought out opportunities to help at the school.
Today, Hager works as the part-time director of Northern Waters Environmental School, an environmental charter school in Hayward, which she helped start in 2012. She also recently started working as the grant coordinator for Eagles Academy, a new environmental charter school starting in Solon Springs School District, where she will also teach next year.
“It’s one thing to tell students you should care about the environment, but it’s another thing to engage the students in what’s going on in their local environment and build that sense of place,” she said.
Northern Waters uses a project-based curriculum for students — the same approach Eagles Academy will use when it is up and running. Rather than telling the students what to think, she said, they teach them how to think and ask questions.
Students explore topics that interest them.
For example, one student, a freshman, is researching pollinators, connecting with professionals about planting seeds and building a prairie at the school.
Other times, the projects are more community based and collaborative, such as when the students found out there was some frustration about people snowshoeing and walking dogs on ski trails.
The students worked with the city and helped establish new trails for those other activities.
One of the most common questions Hager gets is: Can a student who attends an environmental charter school go to college or be successful in life? To that, she would say, a student can go to college or be exceptional in whatever path they choose in life with this type of education.
The school is compiling data on what students’ lives look like after graduating from Northern Waters, but Hager doesn’t need numbers to tell her that her students are prepared for life after school.
One student recently received a full four-year scholarship for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Another is finishing up certification to be a plumber. While a third is working alongside small businesses and jumping right into the working world.
“Students graduate from project-based schools, green schools with so many different definitions of success,” she said. “All of these students are doing wonderfully different things.”
Reach AnnMarie Hilton at [email protected] or 920-370-8045. Follow her on Twitter at @hilton_annmarie.