Once a desert of cracked asphalt and rocks, part of Brown Street Academy’s schoolyard now boasts green grass, wood chips, trees and learning stations in its Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, which made for the perfect space to celebrate Milwaukee’s 47th annual Arbor Day.
“It’s an exciting time to build that love of nature, love of life in our young people,” said Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton. He recalled previous summers where the asphalt playground would get so hot the kids couldn’t play on it. “Now, you can see them involved, planting trees and really creating some lifelong habits,” he added.
Speaking to students, teachers and guests, Thornton proclaimed the school, at 2029 N. 20th St., “Green Street Academy” for the day. Rotary Club members — including president Jeffrey Remsik, MPS staff, Boys and Girls Club staff, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staff, and Common Council President Willie Hines were among the attendees.
Students performed dance, poetry and songs during the one-hour program.
The city’s Arbor Day celebration came to Brown Street Academy after Center for Resilient Cities interim Executive Director Marcia Caton Campbell and senior project manager Jeff Rainwater gave two representatives of the Department of Public Works a tour of the renovated schoolyard. They were impressed with what they saw, and suggested Arbor Day festivities be held at the school, the only one in Milwaukee that has an outdoor environmental learning space, according to Caton Campbell.
Like indoor classrooms, the outdoor classroom is treated with respect, and students aren’t allowed in the area during recess, said Principal Ava Morris. “(It) provides them with the opportunity to explore, stretch, get out and have a different setting,” Morris added. The public school serves children in grades K4-5.
In fall 2008, Brown Street Academy and Alice’s Garden were included in the Greater Johnsons Park Initiative, a capital campaign to improve public facilities in the area, increase green space and raise the quality of life. Major funders included Center for Resilient Cities, Rotary Club and many private donors, according to Morris.
Center for Resilient Cities is looking for additional funding to complete the playground’s renovation. The funds would be used to replace the fencing in front of the school and add a second outdoor classroom at the opposite end of the playground for K4, K5 and 1st grade students, according Morris.
“It makes more sense: if they have their own play area, then they should have their own outdoor classroom,” she said. “It would be more grade-level appropriate.”
Brown Street Academy students planted a Burr Oak tree during the Arbor Day celebration. Each classroom is responsible for taking care of one of the 14 trees.
“Awesome” and “fantastic” were the words students used to describe their new schoolyard. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” said one second grader.