A Nature-Centric Elementary School Sponsored by Northern Ozaukee School System

Homeowners are very aware that much of their annual property tax goes to their local school system. As an adult with no children and a newcomer to Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, I have grumbled about funding the educations of strangers’ children.

But the board of the Northern Ozaukee School District—the recipient of my tax dollars—unanimously approved a resolution allowing Ozaukee County’s Riveredge Nature Center to plan a nature-based, elementary charter school. The school could be open for the 2019–20 school year.

Now there’s an educational concept I could get behind. My Mom was an ardent supporter of and active volunteer at Riveredge, so I already feel warm and fuzzy about the place.

Ted Neitzke IV, chairman of the Riveredge board of directors, said the charter school would educate a maximum of 99 students in kindergarten through fifth grade on its 379-acre property. Students would spend most of the day outside studying subjects normally taught in classrooms.

“Imagine your gym class is tree climbing, or that you’re a third-grader whose assignment every day is taking water samples to test water temperature and clarity and record the number of frogs in a specific area” said Neitzke. “What gets me really excited is that this makes children inquisitive, and that’s the key to learning.”

Riveredge already host a four-year-old kindergarten program, which it runs with the Kettle Moraine YMCA. Neitzke said, “The expectation of our 4-K program is that 70 percent of every day has to be spent outside,” he said.

“We bought our students Wisconsin bodysuits,* which are waterproof and insulated, so they’re outside all the time. You can learn English outside. You can learn math outside. You can learn anything outside.”

Riveredge Executive Director Jessica Jens said the nature center’s school would be one of a handful of nature-based charter schools in Wisconsin, which in addition to being uniquely qualified to teach students about the environment have demonstrated additional benefits from outdoor learning.

“There’s a lot of research that shows outdoor and nature-based education can increase creativity, focus and learning in children,” she said. “It’s important to our mission of inspiring love of the outdoors, but at the same time we acknowledge the holistic benefits of nature-based learning,” said Jens.

Noting that Riveredge is in the Northern Ozaukee School District, Supt. Dave Karrels said a partnership between the nature center and district makes sense academically and financially. As the sponsoring district, Northern Ozaukee would receive additional state aid for students attending the charter school.

Most exciting, Karrels said, are the potential benefits of hosting a charter school that could provide new, innovative educational opportunities for Northern Ozaukee School District students. “I think there will be some wonderful opportunities for partnerships that will benefit the students in our district,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun journey.”

Neitzke said a Riveredge goal is to be a model for schools throughout the area. “We want to grow our charter school to the point where we impact educational practices throughout the region, to the point where other schools say, ‘Hey, look at what they’re doing at Riveredge. Is that something we can do?’ ”

I am excited by the notion of Riveredge’s nature-based elementary school. But I remember that in 2017, Wisconsin removed age limits for hunting. And in the 2016 election, the state’s freshman senator Ron Johnson received more than 1.5 million from the NRA.

Before I commit to supporting the charter school, I want to know if hunting the abundant wildlife at Riveredge (or elsewhere) will be on the curriculum. And whether the school’s teachers will be armed.

I contacted Riveredge on Facebook with those questions. Let’s see if they respond.

*Keep an eye on the New York Times Style section for those “Wisconsin bodysuits,” whatever they may be.


Read the responses by Riveredge Nature Center: UPDATE: Nature-Based School at Riveredge Nature Center

Story on this page annotated from an article published by The Ozaukee Press, 21 February, 2018

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