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Forest-oriented charter school proposed for County Grounds

Hands-on STEM education would be emphasized

Feb. 29, 2012

Unless they visit summer camp or spend a week at a cabin "Up North," children in the Milwaukee area often give little thought to the state's forests and the jobs and revenue they provide.

But the forest industry is one of the largest contributors to Wisconsin's economy, and people with experience in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math will be needed to make sure it stays that way in the future.

"Wisconsin is world famous for forestry but not for job creation," said Tom Gaertner, Tosa resident and board member of the Forest Exploration Center.

The board hopes to bolster the future of both by starting a charter school in partnership with the Wauwatosa School District on 67 acres of woodland owned by the state in the middle of the County Grounds. It would give local middle and high school students an education on the forest industry and the environment in an urban setting, Gaertner said.

"Most kids don't know that paper comes from trees, much less tissues or toilet paper," he said. "There's a big disconnect here."

Plans in the works

The board has set a goal of raising $10 million in three years to build a facility and open a charter school, said John Gee, who was hired as the center's executive director in December. Previously, he was executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association.

Enrollment would start with 50 students, but the program is anticipated to grow to 175 pupils.

"The thematic approach of the forest and the environment is a great interest to a lot of people," said Phil Ertl, school district superintendent.

The district is putting an emphasis on science, engineering, technology and math, or STEM education. It also strives to provide options for kids and parents, and the forestry school would fit, Ertl said. He foresees enough interest from resident students, as well as children from other districts signing up through Open Enrollment, to fill the forestry program.

The School Board heard an introductory presentation about the project Monday. The next step is to get approval to apply for a planning grant from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Learning from nature

Students who enroll in the forestry school would have "hands-on, experiential education" - no typical classrooms or desks, Gee said. In fact, he hopes to use the entire County Grounds - from water samples around the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District retention ponds and creek beds to the apiaries at the UW-Extension community gardens, the animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo to the butterflies on the Monarch Trail - in the curriculum.

"A forester is a scientist and an engineer," Gee said.

The STEM foundation with a forestry emphasis could lead to careers in sustainable architecture or construction, environmental engineering, product development, biology and much more, he added.

A facility with a narrow footprint but that would be tall like the trees is planned for the site. The rest would be naturalized.

"It's second- and third-growth forest on pasture land that regenerated over time," he said. "It's dominated by older and very spindly trees competing for resources. It's in desperate need for attention from a sustainability standpoint.

"One of the first steps, I want to come up with a site improvement plan and partner with area schools to adopt a portion of the woodlands and help bring it back to a healthy state. Facility design and an environmental impact study will follow."

Besides the school, the center would serve as a community center with a theater and food service; a research and development facility with a fabrication lab and wet and dry labs for chemistry; and exhibit space to demonstrate the newest industry innovations and products, Gaertner said.

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