(First published in the July 5, 2018 issue of City Pages)
The Wausau School Foundation is re-energizing itself as a booster to the district. And one of its first major project is to raise funds for the Wausau School Forest.
School Forest Coordinator Jerry Maney and foundation board member Ann Viegut, in front of the Red Lodge at the School Forest.
On a perfect summer day last week, a group of fifth-going-into-sixth graders make their way through the woods, muck boots on their feet, critter nets in hand. One girl stops to talk to the teacher as the rest of the kids walk down the muddy bank toward the small stream east of the water. She tells the teacher her boots are ill fitting and she would like to try another pair. She’s concerned about her ability to participate.
The teacher patiently explains that none of the boots will fit perfectly and she should just try to make do with the ones she has on. They’re meant only to protect her feet from the stream’s mud bottom anyway, and she won’t be there long.
Ten minutes later, the girl excitedly runs back up the trail to show off the critters she caught in her net. She has forgotten all about the boots and how they fit, and, like the rest of the 11-year-olds, is deeply focused on the stream and the little creatures and plant life therein. Exasperated groans come only when the teacher tells them they have about five minutes left. The kids would have stayed in the stream all morning if there weren’t plenty of other activities on the day’s docket.
“Don’t you just feel your blood pressure drop the minute you arrive here,” says Ann Viegut on this Wednesday morning.
We’re at the Wausau School Forest, located about 15 minutes outside Wausau, off CTH KK in Rib Mountain, along the Wisconsin River. It’s a peaceful, camp setting that hundreds of children enjoy during the summer and throughout the year. And it’s also one of the main focuses of the Wausau School Foundation, which is revamping and restating its mission to better support projects it funds within the district.
Viegut is a teacher at John Muir Middle School, and has served on the foundation board for three years. “I really love this new direction,” she says of the foundation’s new commitment to directing their fundraising efforts more to unmet needs as determined with the help of district teachers and administrators. It makes a lot more sense to sit down with staff and really find out what might work best, what’s really needed, she says.
The focus isn’t necessarily changing from its core principals: It’s more about the specifics and identifying projects with the most impact, says foundation Board President Andy Napgezek.
And the school forest is one of the foundation’s major focuses, not only because its main building needs attention, but also because it’s a unique and important experience for students. Most everyone who grew up in the district or has children enrolled holds fond, beloved memories of the days spent there. It’s also a part of Wausau’s character. “The culture of our community is reflected by the programming at the School Forest,” Napgezek says.
Both Viegut and Environmental Educator/School Forest Coordinator Jerry Maney point out the lack of technology at that Wednesday morning in the school forest. Children play with Maney’s little puppy dog, children kayak on the lagoon, or study the rules of a new game in the Red Lodge. There’s not a single screen in sight.
It’s a unique and important part of education, something that you just can’t get sitting inside brick walls, Viegut says. That’s obvious from the look on the children’s faces. Everyone is so engrossed with what they’re doing, it’s clear that they’re receiving an education without even realizing it.
A new foundation
Children don muck boots and grab nets before heading into the stream to search for critters.
There’s a lot of confusion about what, exactly, the Wausau School Foundation is. The school system is supported by tax dollars, so shouldn’t all the money just come from that?
The best way to think of the Wausau School Foundation is to liken it to an athletic booster club, says interim School Superintendent Michael Schwei. The school system supports sports teams, but booster programs add onto that, helping to buy new uniforms or pay traveling expenses to an extra tournament—extras that aren’t otherwise in the budget.
The foundation operates a lot like that, Schwei says, except toward academics. It has a board, and is in the process of hiring a new director that will help kickstart projects, says Napgezek.
The board will now work more closely with administration to help address unmet needs, Napgezek says. Schwei will be a vital link. He has been an ex officio member of the foundation while working as interim district superintendent, but will become a full member when the district’s new superintendent starts this week.
And that boost is important. Wisconsin school funding saw one of the biggest cuts in the state’s history in 2011 under Gov. Scott Walker. That included $1.2 billion in total reductions and $792 million in direct aid to kindergarten through 12th grade education systems. Walker offset that somewhat in the most recent budget, boosting education funding by $639 million and expanding two voucher programs.
The foundation can help boost some key projects, giving major help to the district. But a foundation is only helpful if people know about it. It has been around for decades and has an endowment of around $100,000, but in the past several years has given “a few thousand here, a few thousand there” to certain projects, Napgezek says. “We’d like to identify higher impact opportunities every year.”
That includes hiring an executive director this summer, and launching their refocus with a good, high profile project that will resonate with community members. That’s where the School Forest comes in.
A new lodge for learning
The Wausau School Foundation have given “a few thousand here, a few thousand there” to certain projects, Napgezek says. “We’d like to identify higher impact opportunities every year.”
It’s not hard to find the famed red lodge on the School Forest grounds. It’s one of the first buildings that catches a visitor’s eye, namely because it’s long and red.
It has an impressive history, but now it’s got to go, Maney says. The lodge was once a barracks for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works initiative under Theodore Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative in the 1930s and 40s. The corps provided work for young men as part of an initiative to help put people to work after the Great Depression.
The barracks were moved to the School Forest grounds in 1940, Maney says. It’s the main gathering place for student groups.
On a Wednesday morning, a group of students get their marching orders for the stream adventure before donning the muck boots hanging off hooks lining the outside the building. In the winter, students might learn how to put on their snowshoes before tromping off into the snowy pines.
It’s a cool building, but it’s old and falling apart. The building was never put on a proper foundation, Maney says, pointing out the simple blocks holding the entire building off the ground.
The lodge is very inefficient and difficult to heat in the winter. And although it looks big from the outside, it’s pretty cramped on the inside. A hanging tarp creates two “rooms.” There’s a set of tables and a white board on one side, for instruction, and a more open area on the other side with a stone fireplace.
A new lodge might incorporate parts of the original, including the aforementioned fireplace and some of the wood. Adding labs and more classroom space will serve students better (almost all recreational experiences there are accompanied by some type of written learning assignment). An indoor amphitheater would allow for larger group instruction and help facilitate guest speakers.
The district has set aside about $635,000 toward building a new lodge, Schwei says. The district raised that much so far through multiple sources, such as selling timber and a piece of property across the river, Maney says. One of the foundation director’s first charges will be to develop a capital campaign to raise funds toward the roughly $1 million the new lodge would cost. (The district has had rough plans drawn up so exact costs are not yet known.)
The foundation somewhat lost its focus after the departure of director Kristine Vanden Heuvel, Napgezek says. The foundation’s website doesn’t appear up to date. The past annual report posted on the site is from 2016. Vanden Heuvel was technically paid staff, but volunteered most of her time, Napgezek says.
Thanks to a grant from the Greenheck Foundation, the School Foundation will hire a majority-time director (about 30 hours per week) whose primary charge will be raising funds and raising awareness of the foundation, Napgezek says.
When people around Wausau think of charitable giving, the Wausau School Foundation isn’t on the radar, Napgezek says. The new board with its newly stated mission, wants to change that.
The foundation has remade itself, thanks to some strategic planning by former county board member Ken Day. It refocused its mission, brought on five new board members and will now work more closely with administration to help fill gaps in student learning in the district.
Two prime examples include the School Forest and behavioral health services— something Napgezek says the district has seen a growing need for but cannot adequately address because of funding constraints.
Foundation board members toured the forest and met with staff recently. That matters, because in the past the foundation didn’t always work closely with the district and its initiatives in technology weren’t always compatible with what classrooms already were using.
And foundation members are currently reviewing applications and plan to start interviews soon, Schwei says. So the foundation’s plans should kick off soon.
Forest for a new generation
Students explore the stream at the Wausau School Forest.
Viegut enjoys the School Forest now as a seventh grade geography teacher, but she also enjoyed it as a student herself in Wausau, and later as a teaching assistant helping out at camp in her teen years.
Why is it so important to her and the foundation? It’s a unique learning environment that gives students a greater appreciation for nature, but also taps into a different student experience, Viegut says.
Some children who don’t excel in the classroom might find themselves at home in the natural environment, and find themselves teaching other kids what they know about the outdoors. It gives a sense of accomplishment, and levels the playing field Viegut says. “For the kids with experience with nature, they’re the first ones pointing out deer rubbings or scats, for example,” Viegut says. “The other kids are like, ‘wow, how do you know that?’”
It’s not just students who might get to benefit from a newly renovated area. A new lodge could open up opportunities for more community groups to use the forest, Schwei says. There’s really not room for that now.
But children will still be the primary beneficiaries of the improvements. Keeping in mind the term Nature Deficit Disorder, it makes sense that the foundation would zero in on the forest in one of its first missions as a newly revamped organization. If Nature Deficit Disorder is the ailment, then a quick look around the forest as children engage with the outdoors would show anyone that the school forest is a ready cure.