Feature Stories

Keep on Growing: An Update on Badger Rock Middle School

By Erica Krug | Photo By Erica Krug 0

It’s a drizzly, slate gray, mid-spring morning at Badger Rock Middle School on Madison’s south side, and Robert Pierce looks out the window of his Growing Power office and sighs. “I’d rather be outside,” he says. The coordinator of the Madison chapter of Growing Power, a national non-profit organization dedicated to providing equal access to healthy, high-quality food for people in all communities, Pierce has been working with Badger Rock since the public charter school first opened in September 2011, which we reported on in our spring 2011 issue.

Sitting near Pierce and nodding in agreement is Badger Rock Principal Timothy Bubon. Bubon, wearing work boots and dress pants splattered with paint, also serves as the school’s Coordinator of Urban Agriculture; it’s not a typical title for an administrator at a middle school, but Badger Rock isn’t your typical middle school. As our conversation turns from Pierce’s aversion to certain foods after returning from Vietnam to the importance of good soil, all of a sudden, Pierce looks at Bubon with a big grin to tell him about their former student who, at a farmer’s market the other day, told Pierce about the tomatoes the student is growing in his home garden. These are the kind of successes that can’t always be quantified.

Badger Rock Middle School opened in a temporary space with a class of 40 sixth graders in 2011 with the commendable goal of being a place where students would learn by doing; in a world that is now dominated by testing and data (which translates to less time for things like science and recess), the people who started Badger Rock wanted to get students outside and involved in solving real-world problems in their community. This is also called “project-based learning,” a term that gets thrown around a lot but has real heft at Badger Rock, where students learn language arts, math, and science by doing field work in the community and completing projects connected to the themes of Place, Sustainability and Resilience, Cultural Relevance, and Design and Inquiry. In addition to aligning standards to these themes, Badger Rock is about basic, good practices like making sure every student has a library card.

Now housed in a beautiful new building with open common spaces and lots of windows overlooking the greenhouse and garden area, Badger Rock has about 80 students in sixth through eighth grades. As Pierce, Bubon and I head outside to look around, a class of students spills out of the school and onto the grounds. Science teacher Cari Hauge explains that the students are working on collecting 25 unique specimens of insects, which they will then classify with the purpose of identifying the effects of human impact, like landscaping and mowing, on wildlife. Hauge says that at the beginning of the school year a lot of the students don’t want to go outside, but throughout the school year it is interesting to watch an increase in participation; by this cool, rainy morning in May, every student wanted to go out to collect bugs, Hauge says.

Because Badger Rock is located in a government-deemed urban food desert (a place with little or no access to healthy food or grocery stores), a lot of the school’s focus is on projects surrounding access to healthy food, which is where Pierce comes in. Pierce has been an organic farmer since 1983, when he quit business school to start growing food for a living. He knew he wasn’t going to make a lot of money, but he also knew that money isn’t the only thing that motivates people and says he thought “maybe I’ll just be happy.”

Now Pierce works with Badger Rock students teaching them about vermiculture (aka worm farming), making compost, planting things in a greenhouse, harvesting, and canning foods such as pumpkin puree for pies. In the summer, Pierce works with a handful of students in the Badger Rock garden and helps them to set up their own stands at the South Madison Farmers’ Market that Pierce manages. “When kids put their hands in the soil, it transforms them,” he says.

One of the initial goals of the school was to incorporate food from the garden into the meals in the cafeteria, but this has been a challenge because of government regulations. “We are trying to do something unique,” Bubon says. “Change takes time.”

But despite the challenges, both Pierce and Bubon light up when they tell stories about the students. Bubon enjoys hearing from parents about their children who wouldn’t eat vegetables, but who, now that they get to pull them out of the ground, will eat them. And he loves to tell the story of a female student who was being teased about going to Badger Rock by some boys who went to another middle school. The girl said to the boys, “But do you know how to make your own soil? Do you know how to grow your own food?”

Yes, some changes may take time, but other changes—often the most meaningful ones—can happen within a school year.

Erica Krug lives in Madison where she works as a freelance writer and photographer. Inspired by one of her favorite food writers, Molly Wizenberg, Erica created a blog in 2010 called Wisconsin Fun Next Exit, where she writes about vegetarian food and life in the Midwest.

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