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Waukesha Environmental Education Faces Threat of Extinction

Second-graders from Waukesha's Hillcrest Elementary School study native Wisconsin fauna in the marsh habitat display at the E.B. Shurts Environmental Center.

By Molly Thompson

Every kid remembers his or her first overnight camping trip. For students in the Waukesha School District, that trip may have come in 6th grade as part of the Environmental Education program.

"There aren't a lot of opportunities for kids to get outside anymore," said Joe Smogor, chairman of the environmental education department. "Unless they have parents who are into the outdoors, there's a growing perception that it's dangerous outside. For some reason there's a belief that sitting in front of a TV is safer. Like anything else, it's just the fear of the unknown."

Smogor has been teaching students about the environment as both a classroom teacher and an award-winning environmental educator for nearly 30 years in Waukesha. Now, he's educating the community about how vital it is to keep the program up and running, after the district was forced to put the entire program on the chopping block in the 2006-07 budget.

District officials said eliminating the program would save $100,000 in a projected $3 million shortfall in the budget, but Smogor says the loss of the program would cost much more to the students, the community and the planet.

"Environmental education deals with learning how to live on planet Earth," Smogor said. "The goal is to have students go through the different levels of learning – starting with awareness and knowledge, and then getting the skills to be good citizens of the planet."

Second-graders from Hillcrest Elementary learn about this corn snake through sensory awareness.


In kindergarten, students start using their senses to explore and learn about the environment by touching and holding snakes and other small creatures that live in the E.B. Shurts Environmental Center, which is a short bus ride from most schools in the district. The culmination of the grade school environmental education program is the 6th-grade overnight campout where students hike, explore and gather data, such as surveying the landscape to later create a topographical map back in the classroom.

The district first proposed completely eliminating the K-8 Fox River Sanctuary program and all K-12 classes and resources at the Environmental Center, and the support and training Smogor provides. Now, they are discussing a fee-based system to run the program. Administrators also recommended eliminating 54 full-time teaching positions in the 2006-07 school year. Smogor's concern isn't about saving his position as environmental education chair - if the program is cut or reduced, he'll return to being a classroom teacher. He's fighting for the environment and the future, and many in the community have joined the fight.

Community collaboration

Just as the Waukesha environmental education program's teaching methods are interactive with peers, teachers and the Earth, it also provides connections and partnerships throughout the community. The program has faced cuts before and depends on the nearly 1,000 adults who volunteer each year to run its many activities.

The E.B. Shurts Environmental Education Center is operated through a cooperative agreement between the School District of Waukesha and the City of Waukesha Parks and Recreation Department. Many organizations throughout the community use the building for meetings and events, including the Waukesha Women's Club.

The Women's Club was integral in getting the center built in 1993. The group donated $347,912 from the estate of E.B. Shurts, a Waukesha businessman whose late wife was a member of the group. Faced with the need to find a new meeting place, the group decided against using the money to build its own facility and instead invested in a building that could benefit the entire community.

In addition to the live animal room where students learn about small creatures such as snakes, fish and even a tarantula, and a large habitat display area that includes a naturalistic cave that students can explore, the building has a large multi-purpose meeting room where the Waukesha Women's Club and other groups meet.

The building sits on land owned by the Parks and Recreation Department, and overlooks the Fox River, which becomes the classroom for many environmental education lessons. For instance, 3rd-graders wade in the river to collect specimens and observe to learn about the food webs and energy relationships in the river.

The Waukesha Women's Club is hoping to help again - this time speaking out about the collaborative importance of keeping the building open and the environmental education program intact.

"It brings the community together in so many ways," said Betty Lauer, who was on the original committee to build the center. "It provides a place for groups to meet and it is also helps educate children. They even have weddings there because it's just such a beautiful, natural space with the river sanctuary in the backdrop - especially in the spring with the flowers and blooming plants."

Lauer's group wants to help save the environmental education program - not just for posterity's sake, but for the future.

"To have the space sit empty while students sit in classrooms reading about what they could experience for themselves seems like a waste," she said. "The saddest part that we all realize is that if the program is cut, it will be gone forever. We all know in reality they won't ever bring it back somewhere down the road."

Lauer, who has had three grandchildren go through the environmental education program, said it's also philosophically important to protect the program.

"They are constantly telling us to watch and protect the environment," she said. "Well, how are kids going to protect the environment if they don't know about it? If they never experience it?"

Model program

The Waukesha environmental education program provides sequential academic development for 9,000 K-8 Waukesha students each year and 500 students from 10 other school districts.

Its goal is to help students become environmentally aware, knowledgeable, skilled and dedicated citizens who are committed to improving and sustaining the quality of the environment. The standards-based program has become a model for environmental education infusion throughout the state as it provides hands-on learning integrated with science, social studies, language arts, math and health.

"Environmental education is not a separate subject area – it's a part of other subject areas," Smogor said. "Students are so engrossed in the adventure, they don't realize all the levels of learing involved. We never have discipline problems out in the field. Students are too involved in the activities.

"The value of the program can't always be measured on standardized tests, but when we look at the big picture of what educating is all about, it provides a good fundamental for a lot of kids - reinforcing the basics of the three Rs, but there is also passion," Smogor said.

Classroom teachers who take their students to environmental education classes at the Environmental Center are worried about the possibility of having to provide the same quality of instruction next year without Smogor's assistance or access to the center.

"The seed of environmental responsibility must be planted while they are young," said Hillcrest Elementary teacher Susan Thompson. "If it's not, it won't grow. We can tell them about the environment in the classroom, but nothing helps the ideas take root like getting out there and experiencing nature for yourself. They learn to like it, care about it and take responsibility for it."

Budget hope

School board members have decided to explore ways to keep the program and are now discussing a fee-based system, including a $20 fee for each child in kindergarten through 8th grade who wants to participate in environmental education.

Smogor said he doesn't blame the school board for putting the environmental education program on the chopping block. Instead he blames the state revenue caps and the QEO.

"They had no choice," Smogor said. "They have always been supportive of the program, but they are up against the wall. Since 1993, we have cut and cut – there are no more cosmetics cuts. Everything hurts now."

The state Legislature needs to come up with a new way of funding schools because the current system isn't fair or equitable, Smogor said.

Other potential budget-saving measures proposed for the 2006-07 school year include:

  • Raising class sizes in grades one through 12 from 25 to 27.5 students, which could save about $2.4 million.
  • Cutting the district's busing budget by $100,000. cutting $250,000 from the technology budget.
  • Cutting $150,000 in elementary band and orchestra, which would delay the start of band and orchestra instruction by one year.
  • Adding a $25 fee for each high school student involved in club activities such as student council or Academic Decathlon.

The next meeting is February 28. For more information, contact Joe Smogor at (262) 970-4333.

Environmental education resources

Posted February 20, 2006

Education News