May 18, 2009

Walden School goes green(er)

Walden students creating garden mosaic / Photo by Thomas Aviles

The green revolution continues at the Walden III School. Certified "green" two years ago, and already sporting solar panels on its roof, the school took another step forward today as students began creating a rain garden where cement used to be.

The high school and middle school -- its first building dates from 1863, and its so-called "new" addition erected in 1909 -- will soon boast a 160' by 40' garden area, planted with trees, grass and bushes, and boulders brought in from Franklin. It's a garden with a purpose -- well, three or four purposes, to be precise.

One third of the garden will be a rain garden, located directly in the path of a four-foot wide river of polluted water that pours off the school's roof whenever it rains. The rain garden's plants are specially chosen to open up the soil and create a filter that will trap those pollutants and keep them from going into the water table.

Another third will be a prairie garden, planted with native Wisconsin plants.

The final third will be an outdoor classroom, with places for students to sit and teachers to teach. Well, sorta: "It won't be the teachers teaching, it will be the students teaching; that's the idea," said Alex Mandli, who has taught art at Walden for 10 years.

The garden, and storage building, from a third-floor window,
as the track team runs by

The garden area replaces a former tennis court, and long before that, a street that ran through the building site. Franklin Street actually ran through what is now Franklin Park, next to the school, but which until the 1960s housed a sheet metal plant, railroad tracks and roughly 16 houses, long since bulldozed (although the remnants of some are buried under a big mound of dirt).

The park is part of the city's park system, so tying all this together with the school took some amount of political pull (Thank you, Alderman Jeff Coe!). But the work and cost are being borne by the students themselves; it is the kids who raised most of the $12,000 necessary for the garden installation: the 13 truckloads of dirt, the three loads of compost, the $6,000 worth of trees due to be delivered and planted in the next few days.

Adjacent to the garden is a Parks and Recreation Dept. storage building, until today painted brown (and a graffiti magnet). But it now has a new look: it is covered with hand-made art, a garden-centric mosaic designed and constructed by 28 students from Mandli's elective art class, which has spearheaded the garden installation as well.

Directed by Jane Hobbs-Cascio -- an artist, Main Gallery instructor and Wustum teacher who also worked on the Uptown, Zoo Beach and North Beach Oasis mosaic projects -- students today transformed the building with the mosaic installation. On close inspection you can see the outline of flowers and bugs; by tomorrow, after grout and paint are applied, the mosaic will truly shine.

"It's a non-traditional mosaic," Hobbs-Cascio said, "They painted the design first, then outlined it with mirror shards. Then every other space was filled with tiles." All that on the first day; tomorrow, she and the students expect to grout the entire piece, which covers three sides of the building, and then add colorful paint -- so you don't have to look closely to see the garden motif.

"The building is something pretty to attract people to the garden in a neighborhood where you don't expect it," Mandli said. "Moth to flame."

Besides their fund-raising, Walden's 500 students have long worked to bring green information and practices to their neighborhood. The solar panels, in just their first few months of operation, have kept an estimated 5,000 pounds of pollutants from the atmosphere -- the benefit of solar power over coal-generated electricity. Walden students also have sold energy efficient lightbulbs to their neighbors. "We're trying to get all the people in the neighborhood to do stuff in their own homes," Mandli said.

Eventually, it is hoped that the savings the solar-generated electricity brings may be used to make the building more energy efficient... perhaps replacing some of those Civil War-era windows with storm windows.

But even before that happens, the storage building mosaic -- only half-finished Monday -- is having the desired effect. Mandli said he was stopped by some men sitting on a nearby porch this afternoon, who said to him, "Man, we really love what you're doing."

And, hopefully, there's more to come. An essay by Walden student Bria Kaufman is one of ten finalists (out of 2,000) in an America's Greenest School contest that could win Walden a hybrid school bus. Voting on the essays took place last week; the winner is expected to be named shortly, here.

Artist Jane Hobbs-Cascio and students' half-finished mosaic


  1. Great group of kids!

  2. I wish this was an elementary school as well. Awesome stuff going on here.

  3. why is the rain that pours off the roof polluted?

    and if our rain is polluted, and it falls from every directions, what good is catching this 4 foot wide stream of water into the soil?

  4. because the goal should be to catch ALL water that falls to Earth and do something with it, while we eliminate all CO2 that comes from buring fossil fuels, human/animal respiration, etc. We just need funding from those rich people who refuse to pay for this -

  5. We really need to implement more of Walden into our other public schools. Great Job! Kudos to them.

  6. man, seeing that view out that window sure brings back memories for those of us that grew up in the Franklin building.