Recycling and repurposing are fundamental to Escuela Verde, a charter school in the Walker's Point neighborhood.
The 7 - 12 grade school screams green. In front of the former factory building on Mineral Street, raised beds await planting of vegetables and flowers. They’re flanked by student-constructed benches, the design inspired by famous conservationist Aldo Leopold. A student artfully etched the words "Enjoy Nature" on one of them.
Inside, your eyes and ears experience a cacophony of color and conversation. The walls are painted lime green. Chairs and couches occupy the heart of the school. Every inch is made use of – a sound studio and wood working station in one corner while lettuces flourish under grow lights in another.
Joey Zocher is one of four school “advisors” – no principal with subordinate faculty structure here. “We each have between 16 and 18 students and we share teaching duty and administrative duty,” Zocher says.
Zocher taught at Milwaukee Public Schools for over a decade, then ran a local environmental education center, before she helped found Escuela Verde. In her “spare” time Zocher is working on a PhD in urban education.
The charter school runs year-round and is broken up into eight blocks, called ochos. Students choose projects they’re interested in that also fulfill standard requirements such as math and science.
Student Andrea Alvarez is about to test the strength and color of three chunky sticks of chalk she made. The 8th grader says her advisor helped her brainstorm the science project.
“I did some research and it turns out it’s pretty cool. These are the chalks that I made. I used red, purple and pink watercolors and it turned out. I got a really vibrant color and hopefully it works,” Alvarez says.
Alvarez hopes she can rekindle a “childhood” interest in science. “In this school you have to be really involved, so I’m going to do my best to be interested in science and find things that I like that I can get credit for,” Alvarez says.
She says Escuela Verde appealed to her because it is welcoming. “I can tell the staff my problems and they’ll help me and I know they can help me and plus like I have a lot of issues with stress and stuff like that, so I know they’re there for me, so I feel comfortable here,” Alvarez says.
Jalen Korpela is feeling a bit of stress at the moment. He’s in a race against the clock to complete his chosen topic – the Eiffel Tower. If he fails, he’ll come out of this ocho with zero credit.
He takes a short break to answer the question – why he decided to investigate the Eiffel Tower. “I just really needed credit for World History, so I chose the Eiffel Tower, just basically pulling something out of a hat, it’s random,” Korpela says.
Advisor Joey Zocher acknowledges students need time to adjust to the school’s project-based approach.
“Because it’s a different learning style and it’s different for parents – we don’t give grades, they’re doing projects," Zocher says. "It’s a transition into understanding what we’re really getting at here which isn’t just academic."
Zocher hopes the charter school’s environment and structure helps nurture “whole people.”
“We only have 70 students here and their test scores are from 3rd grade to 12 plus – some our our 7th graders are at 12 plus already and some of our 12th graders are at 3rd; but you’ll notice that none of them make fun of each other, they co-mingle, they are racially diverse," Zocher says. "We talk openly and honestly about it so that they can just realize, they missed a few things – not a big deal, nothing to be embarrassed but, but you have to pick it up. So the students will tutor each other, they have this sense of community."
Students spend much of their senior year working on a thesis, Zocher says, intended to blend students’ individual passion with what they’ve gleaned at Esceula Verde.
“We have a student who felt like there wasn’t enough positive hip hop artists influencing the youth, so he is writing and he’s going in the studio to record this hip hop on sustainability themes that our school focuses on,” Zocher says.
Escuela Verde has plans to move to a building with twice the space above the Menomonee Valley. Zocher says they’re bursting at the seams here – and a growing list of students are waiting to enroll.
“We have 70 students now and we want to grow to 100 and that’s where we would cap it because we feel like that’s a tipping point – we want every teacher to know every student,” Zocher says.
You might be curious about how 8th grader Andrea Alvarez’s chalk-making experiment turned out. She reports encouraging results and that she’s already come up with ways to tweak her next batch.
Alvarez’s interest in science seems to be rekindling.