Forest Exploration Center in Wauwatosa moves forward undaunted
Eschweiler building gets cleaning; school offers program
The interior of the Eschweiler administration building has taken a step toward habitability, the University Lab School has held a week of programming, and the 67-acre forest controlled by the Forest Exploration Center has already been used as a learning environment.
Despite the recent departure of executive director John Gee, the refusal of FEC officials to disclose the state of their fundraising and newly arising questions about highway construction materials stored on the forest property (see related story), some of the FEC's dreams have begun to come true.
For the fourth time, a group of volunteers gathered Saturday at the Eschweiler administration building and worked to clean it up. With the hallways and rooms lit by utility lights, some of the past glory of the building is becoming apparent. Without trash, broken glass, pieces of broken plaster and layers of dust as distractions, a visitor can take in the order of the place — the layout, the straight sturdy walls, the way it might have been.
A fifth cleanup session will be held Aug. 30.
Glimpses of what could be
On a recent tour, Tom Chapman, who leads the FEC's board of directors, pointed out small areas of experimental refurbishment — a few square feet of wall cleaned of graffiti and polished to reveal to its original wood stain; and a stairway railing with its wooden top buffed and its metal posts painted shiny black.
These little patches of finished renovation are vivid demonstrations of what could be.
From a window upstairs, the skyline of downtown Milwaukee is spread out in the sunlight, and a window on the other side overlooks the leafy landscape of Wauwatosa.
It'll take money and time to bring the building back, Chapman acknowledges, but this intermediate work gives him and others who have seen it hope.
The school session
Danny Goldberg is a believer. But his concern is not so much with the building as with the FEC's University Lab School, which he directs. He's an educational consultant by trade, and couple weeks ago he brought together 28 middle school students, with three high school mentors, for the school's first week of programming. The program was free for the students.
Held at Wil-O-Way Recreation Center on Underwood Parkway, the six-day program had the students exploring the woods for half the day, collecting artifacts, and inside the center for half the day, creating banners, writing journals and making connections between the woods and what they'd found.
The students worked at identifying the artifacts and explaining "what that artifact symbolized according to their own forest exploration experience," Goldberg said, "and then there were various other kinds of activities as well."
The artifacts were sometimes as simple as rocks "and explaining what the rock symbolized or what it meant in terms of the forest; or acorns, protecting seeds, and the need to protect the forest," he said. "It was a creative exercise as much as it was scientific investigation."
They studied the rates at which different kinds of landscapes absorb water and did tree-measuring and other exercises.
The culmination of the work was earning Forest Explorer badges.
"To get their explorer badges they had to connect the exploration and their own sense of the important questions (of) what is a forest, why are forests important, where do we go from here, how do we sustain forests."
Goldberg said all of the activities were mapped to the Common Core Standards used by schools, in various subject areas, combining arts and sciences.
Goldberg plans ongoing activities, although they are not scheduled.
"We don't have a schedule for the ongoing activities because it's going to be contingent upon the kinds of reception we get at the schools," he said. "What we asked the students to do was be forest ambassadors back to their school. So the first step would be a follow-up with the individual students, and in most cases we'll be doing that during home visits, because we did home visits before we started."
He said the school would then make a contact with the student's regular school. He said in some cases that would be easy, as the University Lab School worked with the schools to identify students from a Pathways to College program who might be interested in enrolling.
Goldberg said the students came from 11 different schools, mostly from Milwaukee. Three students were from Wauwatosa Public Schools.
The Wauwatosa School Board has reacted against the presence of the University Lab School within the district, viewing it as a competitor for students and the funding that follows them.
But Goldberg said, "I'm in productive dialogue with (Superintendent) Phil Ertl now."
He said other Lab School programs, perhaps attracting some of the same students, could involve an exploration of the forest in different seasons, and tracking sugar maple trees from summer to fall to when they yield sap for syrup in the winter.
Finding a new director
Since the departure of Gee, who couldn't agree on a new contract with the FEC board when it expired at the end of June, his duties have been handled by members of the board. Chapman said the FEC board had established a subcommittee to begin the search for a new executive director and was working on a detailed job description.
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