Center for Resilient Cities
A rendering by the Center for Resilient Cities of a Badger School campus.
It's an idea that's been brewing in David Wasserman's mind since the 2001-02 school year, when he did his student teaching at a green school in Portland, Ore. Now, he hopes the time is right to launch an environmental charter school in Madison.
"It's very exciting," says Wasserman, a teacher at Sennett Middle School. "There are so many things that keep getting added to the mix."
Wasserman is involved in a grass-roots initiative to create what is being tentatively called Badger Rock Middle School. He and others believe the political winds are blowing the right way for charters.
President Barack Obama highlighted charter schools as part of his recent Race to the Top talk at Madison's Wright Middle School - one of two public charter schools in Madison. Gov. Jim Doyle visited Wright in November to sign legislation making charters uniformly subject to standards of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Wasserman is also encouraged by Madison schools Superintendent Dan Nerad's openness to new approaches.
The environmental charter group plans to present its proposal before the Madison school board on Jan. 4. If the plan is okayed, the group can apply for a grant to start the school in 2011.
Badger Rock Middle is envisioned as a project-based, interdisciplinary school that would operate year-round. Sixth- through eighth-graders - a diverse 120-student population is planned - would learn in multi-age groups through field projects, publications and public-service projects.
"There are so many things to learn about that cannot be divided into 50-minute chunks," Wasserman says. Even school meals would be a learning experience, as students would use urban agriculture practices to grow and prepare food.
Organizers hope to partner with the Center for Resilient Cities and Will Allen of Milwaukee's Growing Power. The Madison-based center is finalizing plans to buy a vacant former school building on East Badger Road and Rimrock Road and turn it into Badger School, an urban ag/community center campus.
Under state law, charter schools in Madison must be authorized by the school board. It alone has the authority to contract with a charter governing board to start a charter and monitor its progress.
The state Department of Public Instruction this summer received a five-year, $86 million federal grant for charter schools in Wisconsin. It will use an existing competitive grant process to award funds for startup and the first two years of operation.
With this money, the DPI aims to create 130 charter schools in the state during the next five years, says Margaret McMurray, a charter schools consultant for DPI. In 2009-10, the state has 206 charter schools, including 10 in Dane County.
"We're seeing a lot of interest in what we call project-based learning," McMurray says of current charter trends. "They study a problem or research a problem with input from teachers and other students and create a public presentation. At particularly the high school level, this has become very popular."
Another trend: green charters that take a different approach and get kids excited about learning. The school district in Verona, for instance, has proposed changing the focus of its New Century charter school, to make it Dane County's first green school.
Senn Brown, who helped form the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association and the national Green Charter Schools Network, confirms the growing interest in green charters: "Wisconsin leads with 20 schools started that have an environmental focus, many with project-based approaches."
But Brown says Madison has not accepted the charter idea as much as other cities. Appleton, for instance, has more than a dozen charter schools, including Valley New Middle School, a green, project-based charter.
"The school board has such a great opportunity here," says Brown, "to look at how education is changing and what are the efficiencies in serving all kids."
Madison's last charter proposal met opposition and failed in 2007. It was for an elementary Studio School, with an art and technology focus. But the school district argued and school board agreed that it would cost too much, up to $1.5 million over five years.
The push for Studio School was led by Nancy Donahue, now director of the private Walbridge School in Madison. Besides financial concerns, she saw a "stubbornness" among those who didn't want to "relinquish control to charter school groups," opting for a one-for-all system instead.
"I found that particularly disturbing because everyone has different needs," Donohue says. "If education isn't working then you should try something different. Charter schools are a way to pilot programs on a small scale and grow them from there if they're successful."
In its newly passed Strategic Plan, the Madison School District makes no specific reference to charter schools. But it includes a call to identify "alternative education and innovative programs and develop a plan to expand alternative programs and educational options," with an emphasis on creating partnerships.
The district has such a partnership in Nuestro Mundo, the city's first dual-language immersion elementary school. The school, established in 2004 as a public charter inside Allis Elementary School, was granted a five-year extension to its charter by the school board last February. But the board last spring declined to approve a dual-language middle school for students who will soon be the school's first graduates.
Bryan Grau, an organizer and Nuestro Mundo board member, says the school board decided to develop its own program to serve these students. He believes it's "still willing to look at a charter if it meets a need of the district that the district isn't meeting."
School board member Ed Hughes says proposed charter schools must "first address the question of what is the problem that the school is intended to solve. What is the added value that the school can provide that our regular schools are unable to provide?"
The environmental charter proponents are confident their school addresses this issue.
"There are so many ways teaching and learning can happen," Wasserman says. "It's good to try different things out in a system, and if it goes well, the district can incorporate it."