Redefining outdoor education

Riveredge Nature Center rolls out its plan for an elementary charter school where students will study all subjects outside year-round

LYNN SCHANEN, a 4-year-old kindergarten teacher at Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville, helped children with some outdoor activities last week. The 4-K classes operate on the same outdoor-learning model that a 5-K through fifth-grade school will next year at the nature center. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

About 70 parents, many of them with their young children, showed up at Riveredge Nature Center last Thursday for the first information meeting on the new school planned for this fall where students will study all subjects outside year-round.

“I think we’ll be pretty disappointed if she doesn’t get in,” said Emily Steffen of Farmington, who with her husband, Seth, sends their daughter to the nature center’s 4K school, which operates similarly to how the new school will.

“She’s very excited to go to school in the morning and very excited to tell us what she learned, especially the nature stuff,” Emily said. 

The 5K-through-fifth-grade school, which will be chartered by the Northern Ozaukee School District, is approved to take 99 students eventually, but in its first year will only accommodate 72 students, 16 to 18 per grade level, said Riveredge Executive Director Jessica Jens, who led last week’s meeting.

Jens started out by showing photos to parents, such as children climbing trees harnessed to ropes.

“Imagine this is gym class,” she said.

And then snapshots of children in a meadow drawing.

“And imagine this is art class.” 

Jens shared research contending that outdoor learning benefits students in all subject areas such as English and math, not just nature-related studies.

“Children learn better just by going outside,” she said. “Studies show children do better in tests just by going for a walk before the test.”

The school, known as Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School, or ROLES, is a public school and tuition free, although there will be fees of $80 to $100, she said.

Children also will likely be provided with multicolored jump suits to wear over their clothing so they don’t get dirty or wet studying and playing outdoors. 

“You will be buying a lot less stuff than you do in traditional schools,” Jens said.

Lunches will be cold and there will be no public bus transportation, although it will be possible to organize some sort of busing for an additional cost.

Before- and after-school day care also can be provided for an additional charge at the nature center, area YMCAs or local churches who have expressed interest in doing so.

Parents who live outside the Northern Ozaukee School District must apply through the state open enrollment process, which runs from Feb. 4 through April 30.

Many of the parents in attendance send their children to the Riveredge 4k school, which operates in conjunction with the West Bend School District and the Kettle Moraine YMCA.

Melissa Sabel lives in Myra in the Town of Trenton and the West Bend School District. Her daughter attends the 4K school and would have to apply to the new school through open enrollment.

“They have so much fun she comes home and goes to sleep. She knows the names of trees!”

Corey and Brittany Graham, of West Bend, have a son at home who will be 5 years old next year. 

“We saw (news about the school) online,” Brittany said. “He’s very active. It seems like it would be a better environment for him than in a classroom. 

The turnout at Thursday nights’s event concerned the Grahams.

“I’m a little worried that there might be a higher demand than slots available,” Brittany said.

Jens said interest in the school has been high but she was pleasantly surprised by Thursday night’s turnout.

“I was very happy to see all these folks here,” she said.

An online survey showed 154 families from 30 different school districts interested in the outdoor school, she said.

And she wasn’t surprised that many families in the center’s 4K school are interested.

“We’re not trying to target our 4k parents, but it makes sense that they’re one of the audiences interested in the project because they’ve seen it work and they’re all members of Riveredge,” she said after her presentation.

A lottery system will be used to fill the school if there are more applications than seats available. Preference will be given to some children, for instance siblings of children already enrolled and to children of staff, teachers and the school’s governance council, although those children cannot constitute more than 10% of the total enrollment. Children admitted this year will automatically be accepted the following year.

No preference will be given to students in the 4K school or to residents of the Northern Ozaukee School District.

For classrooms, when classes are held indoors, Jens said plans call for building a “Riverside Outpost” near the Milwaukee River on the center’s 379 acres, and possibly purchasing or building a yurt, modeled after the traditional Mongolian round tent. 

Jens said an education center also will be built on the center property and expects to announce a fund raising campaign for that in coming months.

The school also has begun hiring staff, including “lead teacher” Jessica Tipkemper, a former environmental educator with the National Park Service and who now teaches in Alaska.

She spoke to parents on Thursday through an online video program.

For more information about the school and registering, go online to The site also contains a link to begin the process of open enrollment.




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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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