In a struggling neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, a charter school focused on environmental education has become a wellspring of community revitalization—thanks in large part, to the students themselves.
A project of the Center for Resilient Cities, Badger Rock Middle School’s inaugural class spent its first year in a rented warehouse, using donated secondhand furniture. The school now has four semesters under its belt and a brand new eco-friendly building outfitted with solar tubes and geothermal heating. Future plans for the school’s grounds include a gymnasium, meeting spaces, and retail shops, creating a hub for community interaction in an area currently without a grocery store, coffee shop, or church.
The students -- 65 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals -- spend one morning a week working in the school’s garden and turn their harvest into lunch. Other weekly activities include hands-on ecology investigations with a field biologist, outdoor projects like monitoring bird boxes, and indoor study sessions where they learn about the school’s rainwater-collection system.
Recently, the students added another activity to their roster: park rehabilitation.
The idea originated one day when the sixth-grade class were in the field, checking out local biodiversity. The students tossed hula hoops into Badger Park, which lies next to the school, and counted the number of species corralled in each one. When they compared their tally with numbers from a dedicated conservation park nearby, they realized that there should have been three or four times as many species in Badger Park. Sixth-grader Elise Marquardt remembers thinking, “This isn’t good.”
Inspired by ecologist Aldo Leopold’s Depression-era rehabilitation of an abandoned farm, the students decided to take action to restore the park’s diverse ecosystem. Their science teacher, Aaron Kaio, called the Parks Department to ask if the students could work on remediating the area. Skeptical at first, officials eventually agreed to send someone out to evaluate the students’ plans.
To create the rehabilitation plan, students picked species they wanted to see in the park and researched their habitat requirements to figure out how to attract them. They also reached beyond the student body and sought input from local residents. Badger Park is a community space, but no one was using it -- everyone went to another park farther away. The students went door to door to find out what people would like to see in the space. They then incorporated some of those ideas -- like nature trails -- into the plan they presented to the Parks Department in November 2012.
After the presentation, the Parks Department agreed to collaborate with the students on restoring the area. Says Kaio, “It wasn’t until the kids were able to present to them that they were like, ‘These kids do kind of know what they’re talking about, and they’re passionate about it, so okay, let’s give them a shot.’”
The first testament to the students’ thoughtful planning and unremitting enthusiasm is a 1,000-square-foot prairie full of native species like brown fox sedge and blue flag iris bordering a drainage basin adjacent to the park. It’s the fruit of collaboration with the seventh graders, who had spent the year studying water flow on the property. More than just a diverse and locally adapted ecosystem, the prairie also functions as a rain garden, filtering water that washes in from the street and defending against erosion.
Fall of 2013 will bring another round of planting to expand the prairie and create habitats for species like the American toad -- plentiful right across the street but nowhere to be found at the school. In the years ahead, bike paths, nature trails, and a pond will slowly transform Badger Park into a thriving community space with a robust ecosystem.
Badger Rock’s students are changing the landscape, but it seems that the transformation goes both ways. “When I first came here, I had no idea what ‘biodiversity’ meant, explains sixth-grader Majenta Stuntebeck. "When I go to a park now, I can see the difference between one park and another park.” Seventh-grader Jesse Dickrell agrees, “When you come out of this school, you look at things a different way.”
What are the students’ hopes for the land and the larger community five or ten years from now?
“Being in full bloom all year, having it be as beautiful as we can have it,” says Elise. “And having the community happy, because that’s what it’s about. Our whole school wants this to be a better place.”
For more projects like this one, check out the Earth Partnership for Schools Program of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, which helped the students select native plants for their prairie.