Pay Dirt

A resilient plot of land on the city's south side will soon grow jobs and a whole lot more

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Learning to Grow

If all continues to go well with the approval process, Badger Rock Charter Middle School could be the first tenant in the fall 2010 construction, prepping to welcome its first forty to eighty students by the fall of 2011. The school would be project-based, and proponents say it will be an “interdisciplinary program focusing on environmental sustainability with culturally relevant teaching,” a “hands-on exploration and study of food growth and science, energy and water use, and community cooperation.”

Eventually they’d like to have 120 students, at least fifty percent of whom will come from the immediate neighborhood, a neighborhood in which seventy-six percent of students currently qualify for free and reduced lunch. The need for a school is real—as it stands now, local kids are bused away to Allis Elementary on Buckeye Road, Sennett Middle School and LaFollette High School, both on Pflaum Road.

Sara Alvarado, small business owner and south side community member, was one of the founding members of Madison’s Spanish immersion charter school, Nuestro Mundo. In 2008, she connected with a couple of people who’d been involved with a lapsed idea for a green design school, and together they started talking about a potential charter school with an environmental focus—but it wasn’t until the Center for Resilient Cities procured the land that plans for the school took off.

“This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t partnered with the CRC,” says Alvarado. “Financially, we know what [the Madison school district] is going through and they don’t have any money. If we want to create something it has to be budget-neutral.”

As of May, school planners had applied for a $250,000 Department of Public Instruction grant, and they are in the process of getting their detailed proposal approved by the Madison Metropolitan School District. Though Alvarado acknowledges the road ahead is long, she’s more than optimistic.

“Trying to get Nuestro Mundo going was negative and difficult and I became so jaded by the red tape,” she says. “This has been a completely different experience. It’s green lights, it’s positive, it’s collaboration with MMSD, it’s night and day.”

Brenda Baker of the Madison Children’s Museum is on the school planning team and was one of the people Alvarado connected with a couple years back.

“The fortuitous thing was that we worked for about a year talking about it, knowing the school’s budget situation was so dire,” says Baker. “All of a sudden we’ve got this great partner. We were in the right place at the right time. There’s a lot of synergy right now.”

Though Baker was originally working on a green school before she met Alvarado, the two shy away from that terminology now.
“It will be green, yes, but it’s so much more than that,” says Baker. “It’s a community school. It’s sense-of-place education. It’s not just about the materials, it’s about the culture and the people.”

The educational opportunities will spread far beyond the middle school, according to Joe Sensenbrenner, president of the board of the Center for Resilient Cities. He envisions people from the neighborhood walking to their jobs on the farm or in the restaurant, interns studying exothermic research or aquaponics, kids shadowing professional gardeners or restaurant managers, conducting science experiments with wind power or photovoltaic energy using MG&E’s on-site equipment. He sees people of all ages and cultures trading ideas and conversation, values and histories, breaking locally harvested bread together every day. And though he predicts cities across the country will emulate what is going on in Madison, above all it’s about one local neighborhood nurturing, harvesting and feeding itself in myriad ways.

“We’re very interested in the neighborhood impact,” says Sensenbrenner. “How does this affect people’s attitudes and practices toward individual diet? Toward obesity or adult-onset diabetes? How do young people view homegrown and naturally grown foods versus other kinds of food? How do they view recipes of other ethnic and national backgrounds? Does this help people get to know each other better?”

Sensenbrenner points to the involvement of researchers such as UW–Madison professor emeritus Jerry Kaufman of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, who retired from teaching in 2003 to serve as board president of Growing Power, or world-renowned
neuroscience professor Richard Davidson, who’s interested in how focus and attention impact learning. The CRC could use that knowledge to enrich its programming. The CRC is also working with UW sociology professor Michael Bell to understand the impact this project will have on practices in the neighborhood, and there are plans to study ways to apply water retention pond techniques to farming methods in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley, so prone to flooding.

“We have opportunities here to reinforce some fundamental research,” says Sensenbrenner. “This is a learning and production laboratory that will benefit the neighborhood, the entire school
system and other cities.”

A Farmer’s Full Circle

Robert PierceRobert Pierce remembers when Badger School was alive and well, because he attended kindergarten through fifth grade in the very building he now leans against eating his lunch.

“Actually, they kicked me out of kindergarten because I could already read and write,” he laughs, a free and easy belly guffaw familiar to the smiling volunteers wheelbarrowing past him. Pierce has always been ahead of the game, and deeply committed to his neighborhood. He started Half the 40 Acres organic farm back in 1983 to alleviate the food allergies he’d picked up in Vietnam, and started managing the South Madison Farmers’ Market about ten years ago.

“I decided I couldn’t force people to grow food without poisons for me, so I decided to grow it myself,” he says.

For years he’d heard about a man in Milwaukee who was doing very similar things, but he didn’t actually meet Will Allen until about ten years ago. The two men connected immediately, and years later when Allen was interested in developing Growing Power in Madison, he knew just who to call.

“Three years ago Will said, ‘Robert, I have a vision.’ He said, ‘You’re going to be Madison’s Growing Power,’” says Pierce. “I laughed and said, ‘I’ll just be here doing what I’m doing.’” Pierce started a Growing Power farm at Avant Gardens of McFarland but continued searching for a more permanent plot to sow. The informal partnership between Pierce and Allen turned formal when the CRC purchased the land at Badger and Rimrock, and the fit was evident to all parties involved. Growing Power dug in.

“It just gets bigger and bigger,” says Pierce, who also runs a youth group and plans to have participants tend the farms two days each week. “We’ve got a good place with good people who understand what we’re doing here, you know?”

It’s obvious what’s happening here today is about so much more than growing food. Gardening as community building is something Pierce and Allen have long called a profession, but today few of the people working here are professional gardeners. UW environmental ed students have given up their Saturday morning to haul dirt with grandmothers and retired teachers. A young dad watches his baby scoop the rich soil with a toy shovel. School proponents connect to pencil in the next planning session. Allen stands watching it all, smiling.

“Growing Power could have done this ourselves today,” says Allen. “We could have waited to bring you people in, but that’s not what this is about. We want the community involved from the very start. It’s the passion that we’re able to grow. You can throw a lot of money at something like this but if you don’t have the passion, it will go away very quickly. That’s what we’re doing here today. This is just the beginning.”

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

 

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