Green and growing: Local philanthropy helps Lake View Elementary expand its forest

The following post was written by Mike Ivey for Isthmus on December 21, 2017.


The pleasing sound of leaves crunching underfoot is a key piece of the curriculum these days at Lake View Elementary. Getting students interested in the outdoors is a natural fit at the northside school, considering it sits amid a native savannah where some of the gnarly white oaks have stood since the Civil War.

“I love giving tours of our woods,” says second grader Arash Aziz, who was born in Afghanistan and has found a new home in Madison with his parents and three siblings.

Now, thanks to a move by several local groups, the trees surrounding Lake View could well survive another 100 years.

Groundswell Conservancy — formerly the Natural Heritage Land Trust — will close Dec. 22 on a half-acre of private land adjacent to the school property that had been slated for development.

The parcel will be deeded over to the Madison school district for permanent inclusion in Lake View’s acclaimed school forest.

“It’s a pretty wild area back in there,” says Susie Hobart, outdoor education coordinator at Lake View. “Right now it’s so full of buckthorn and other invasives, it’s even hard for the deer to get through.”

Long-range plans call for clearing the area of non-native plants and restoring it to a more natural condition. Signs will direct visitors to the balance of the school forest.

But preserving the land for educational purposes may provide even greater benefits, considering so few of the 280 students who attend Lake View have easy access to green space. The school is one of the most diverse in the city and more than two-thirds of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“A lot of these kids are living in brick apartments surrounded by nothing but asphalt parking lots,” says Heidi Habeger, director of major and planned gifts at Madison-based Groundswell Conservancy. “This gives them a chance to explore and enjoy the outdoors.”

Since Lake View first established its outdoor classroom in 2011, the program has evolved into an active, nature-based educational model. The idea is to get both students and their family members thinking about becoming stewards of the land while also giving kids a “brain break” during the school day.

“We’re hoping they can take what they learn here to improve where they live both locally and globally and promote a healthy lifestyle,” says Hobart, a retired Lake View teacher now working on a volunteer basis after state support for outdoors education was trimmed two years ago.

With help from Community Groundworks, long active at Troy Gardens, and the Madison Community Foundation, school staff and local volunteers have built raised garden beds, added butterfly beds, created a rain garden and erected a shelter dubbed the “Pazillion” by former student Ulysses Kovach, who astutely remarked “you can do a pazillion things in it.”

Most recently first graders have begun to plant seeds to restore a prairie and fifth graders worked on an erosion prevention project near the school’s parking lot. Students can also volunteer to become “Eco Leaders” where they guide tours and act as citizen scientists by helping to collect data on birds, plants or animals.

On a recent morning, third-grader Saraii Slaton takes note of fungus growing out of a tree stump and says: “There is so much you can see if you just take the time to look closely.”

Central to the educational program are the three acres of woods that wrap around the back of the school. Designated as a school forest, the land features 24 species of trees including white and red oaks, ash, white mulberry, black cherry, crab apple and box elder.

When an adjacent parcel not owned by the school district was slated for new housing, however, officials grew concerned it would compromise the character of the existing woodlot. Hobart made a call to friends at Groundswell Conservancy who scrambled to come up with funds to purchase a key piece of high ground.

A $40,000 donation from the Nimick Forbesway Foundation was crucial to setting things in motion.

“Education and the environment are key to our mission,” says Vikki Enright, vice-chairwomen of the Nimick Forbesway Foundation. “This project is very exciting.”

Other major contributions included $20,000 from the Evjue Foundation, $10,000 each from the John C. Bock Foundation and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation plus $25,000 from the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Eventually a $140,000 deal was reached between Groundswell, Habitat for Humanity and developer Tom Keller to preserve the most densely wooded hilltop piece of land while splitting off another section along Tennyson Road for affordable housing.

“It was a difficult parcel to work with but I think everybody was pretty satisfied with the result,” says Keller.

Plans now call for using the newly acquired piece of land to establish a permanent access point to the Lake View school forest that can be used by both the school and adjacent neighborhood.

The area just to the east is being developed into a mix of multifamily housing, including assisted living units from Independent Living.

“When school is out we hope kids and families will come spend time here,” says Habeger of the Groundswell Conservancy. “It’s important we make this a part of the broader community.”