A new, sustainable approach to education
I took a tour of the new Badger Rock Middle School the same week my daughter started sixth grade across town. While I have no reason to believe her middle-school experience will be anything but positive, I’m a little jealous of Badger Rock parents, whose kids get to learn by digging in the school gardens, foraging fruits and veggies for snacks, and tackling coursework through outside-the-book experiences. The place is, in a word: awesome.
And, it’s not just a middle school. The facility also houses the Resilience Research Center (RRC), the district’s only full-service kitchen that doubles as a commercial kitchen incubator, a neighborhood center, and the Madison operation of the Milwaukee urban agriculture giant, Growing Power. In the worlds of urban planning and economic development of the future, it’s a pretty big deal, and unlike anything else Madison has ever seen.
At the heart of the school’s mission is building, sustaining and then spreading new and effective teaching and learning practices throughout the district, if not beyond. “It will become a model for communities around the country to learn from and study,” according to the RRC. Our tour guide, Joe Sensenbrenner, who chairs the board of the Center for Resilient Cities, which led the collaborative that envisioned and launched the school in a miraculous three short years, tells us students from sixth grades in other schools will have the opportunity to visit (“cross-pollinate,” as he aptly puts it) as part of an internship program. Sign my kid up!
Located just off the Rimrock Road exit from the Beltline, Badger Rock is what’s known as an instrumentality charter school. By law, it’s still governed by the school district and must comply with certain guidelines, such as standardized testing and unionized teachers. The key difference is autonomy, which in this case means experimenting with an educational model that research has shown to be most effective. If you’re familiar with Nuestro Mundo, the city’s dual-language charter elementary, you know the concept can work.
Badger Rock chose to focus on sustainability—every inch of it is a learning lab, right down to the geothermal energy systems and the pervious parking lot. Classes convene in the boiler room, studying eco-friendly utilities. Or on the roof, observing solar tubes that account for much of the building’s light. Or in the hallways, where generously donated art adorns the walls, and where one entire wall is made of wood from spruce trees harvested on the property.
In fact, according to the RRC, “about 90 percent of all waste created on site, including demolition of the old Badger School building/warehouse, has been recycled or reused.”
In addition, lockers, desks, chairs, books and maps came from Jackie Robinson Middle School in Milwaukee via Gorman & Company out of nearby Oregon. Not only did reclamations like these save Badger Rock a million dollars, the carved initials on vintage desks and the dog-eared book pages give the place a sense of continuity and connection that new furnishings simply couldn’t.
When we visited in early September the first of two greenhouses—complete with an in-ground fish tank—was almost done, and garden goodies were ready to be picked, washed, prepared and eaten. There’s also a cranberry bog, grape arbor and fruit trees, including more than a dozen varieties of apple. Amazingly, this is all just Phase One. Phase Two calls for a gym, and retail space—think a restaurant or a grocery store—for products produced on site.
I’m proud to have a child enrolled in one of the other Madison middle schools—I’m confident she’ll work hard, get a great education and be fully prepared for high school and college—but I do hope the district moves quickly to implement the best practices of Badger Rock into other schools in the district.
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