LAFARGE - A small school tucked away on 9,000 acres of some of the finest land the Driftless Region has to offer has been making national waves lately. The Kickapoo Valley Forest School, situated at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge is entering into its fifth month of classes, almost completely outdoors.
The school, a charter of the La Farge School District, is also completely female-led.
“We work hard to see the humanness in each other and are open to bringing vulnerability to the table,” shared Kickapoo Valley Reserve’s educational director, Jonek Kiesau of having a female-lead team. “We value the professionalism each woman brings with her years of service and we seek a holistic approach to problem solving. It feels so natural and like a great model for future women leaders.”
Kiesau has been the educational director of the Kickapoo Valley reserve for nearly twenty years and touts herself as “one leg of a five legged leadership planning coordination effort” that includes Meaghan Gustafson, District Superintendent for the La Farge School District, Julia Buckingham, 4K/Kindergarten Educator and Leadership Team, Robin Hoseman, Assistant Planning and Leadership Coordinator and Ximena Puing, 4K/ Kindergarten Teacher and Leadership Team. Other staff members of the school include Maiela Leinberger, AmeriCorps Farm to School Specialist, Summer Willis, Office Manager and Jesse Kahn, Para Educator.
Being a part of a full woman leadership team in education is a unique experience, with the National Center of Educational Statistics noting that up until 2017, the numbers of female principals alone fell below 50 percent.
“I feel extremely supported, encouraged, and comfortable sharing both large and micro picture ideas and processes,” Buckingham shared of being a part of pioneering this unique school with a full female leadership team.
Kickapoo Valley Forest School is also unique as it is part of a public school as it’s charter, allowing any child to enroll free of charge, with about 75 percent of it’s students open enrolling from outside the district.
“It’s been great as a small rural district to be able to offer this opportunity,” Shared Gustafson. “The collaboration has been a long journey. Although the model isn’t traditional, we are invested in growth and achievement for the students.”
The property on which the school takes place was originally slated to be a 400 to 800 acre reservoir to help control flooding, in the mid 1960s, and was later revised to a 1,780-acre lake that would have required the removal of nearly 200 farms from the area. In that time several farmsteads were eventually purchased with the plans to complete the project by the Army Corps of Engineers.In total, According to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve’s website, the Corps purchased 8,569 acres, removing houses and buildings and beginning work erecting a large, earthen dam across the valley floor. However in the mid-1970’s the plan was halted over environmental and budget concerns.
“Over the next 20 years, nature gradually reclaimed the La Farge project area. Trees covered the valley, which the Corps had cleared for a 1,780-acre,12 mile long reservoir. The dam looked more and more like one of the natural bluffs. In the 1996 Water Resources Development Act, Congress completed the circle. It directed the Corps to return up to 1,200 acres to the former Native American inhabitants- the Ho-Chunk Nation- and the rest to the State of Wisconsin. The Kickapoo Reserve management Board now oversees the state’s portion.”
“There’s a long historic process of eminent domain issues that hurt local districts with over 140- families being removed from the district,” Kiesau explained. “So to have it come full circle 45 years later and bring students back to this spot and the district has been really amazing.”
Although the setting may be different, the foundations of learning are still available to the young minds growing in the woods.
“They’re immersed in a rich environment full of opportunity,” shared Buckingham. “Vocabulary skills are built when the kids are able to describe what they see around them, things like physics are introduced when they’re able to visualize and describe patterns in the trees. They’re learning to work together as they lift and carry sticks to build forts, they’re enhancing their sensory experiences by learning to navigate all of their gear they need to be outside the whole day. There are so many learning opportunities beyond the traditional foundational learning.”
Parents and children alike seem to be responding positively to the experience so far.
“This year’s class really signed up for an idea,” noted Kiesau. “This had not been done before here, so for the families to trust us and the process has been a really incredible experience.”
“Our kindergartner, who is our middle of five children, has boundless energy and is a wildlife lover with endless curiosity,” Shared parent, Amanda Caldwell. “My child has constantly made gains in confidence, social manners, and communication far past my expectations for a kindergartner. He’s fulfilled and happier. I believe in a traditional classroom setting, my child’s exuberant energy would be overwhelming and ultimately impair his learning. Whereas in the forest, his energy and natural curiosity becomes a learning advantage. I think the connection to the earth my child is learning through will become an invaluable tool in his lifetime as we need more people in touch with nature. We plan to send our younger children to the KVFS as well when they’re old enough.”
Currently, the Forest School offers only Pre-K and Kindergarten class groups, but the plans to expand to a first grade for the 2022-22 school year and second grade the following year are already in place.
“We have a committee in place considering expansion of Kickapoo Valley Forest School to a third through fifth grade model and beyond,” Kiesau noted. “There are so many learning applications for all ages in the Forest School Model. These children will be future collaborators, team builders, nature advocates and problem solvers.”
“We are always considering what’s next for our students and working hard to make this (higher grade levels) possible if we can,” added Hoseman. “Our school will help young people have foundational connections with the earth that may help them be part of the force to better protect it.”
Students of the Forest School arrive around 8 a.m. to begin their day and engage in free play near the reserve’s visitor center, which also serves as a hub for their needs. The students enjoy a hot breakfast before setting off for the day. The kids get their official school day started with a circle and song time, before breaking into groups dubbed the Oaks and the Lindens, headed by Puig and Buckingham. Each instructor carries with them a pack containing various items like a first aid kit and water. The students hike the reserve, honing their skills identifying tracks and trees, but also working on rugs on the forest floor doing number work and reading. At times, in the winter months some of this work is done indoors, however during the warmer times of the year, the entire day is spent outside, sans a short nap period before the end of the day.
Preparation is one of the bigger points when it comes to the forest school routine as well. And students put in the work navigating their gear needs with the changing seasons.
“We take wearing appropriate gear very seriously,” noted Buckingham. “They’ve really gotten used to and are resilient with navigating so much gear as part of their day.”
The school provides a full rain kit with boots, pants and a jacket, and families are also equipped with a long list of gear suggestions and guidance on proper layering to keep them comfortable in any weather. The school has also received donations from companies like Lands’ End to ensure that no child is without proper gear. “We work hard to make sure that all of the children have equitable clothing,” said Buckingham.
“As a woman, I can’t even find a woman’s full body snow suit, I can’t find the proper clothes to do my job!” Buckingham noted the absurdity of gendered equipment, adding she purchased a man’s suit and altered it to fit her needs. Hoseman added that finding properly insulated boots and mittens in women’s sizes can also be tricky.
In addition to the many other benefits of learning in the outdoors, the learning model also has a particular draw during the days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many schools continue to struggle with rising covid numbers and masking debates, families enrolled in the forest school seem to be enjoying the freedom and safety that learning outdoors adds.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors than outdoors. You are less likely to be exposed to COVID-19 when you attend outdoor activities.”
MIT Medical also adds “Outdoor transmission of the virus is rare. Experts believe that the actual risk of outdoor transmission is likely less than one percent.”
Although the Forest School model may not be available to every child currently, the leadership team notes that there are many facets of the experience that families can incorporate into their everyday lives.
“Families can continue their experiences outside in all kinds of weather with their child dressed appropriately,” said Buckingham. “Playgroups for the children to freely play together outside in nature, and being outside for extended periods of time can be extremely beneficial for both the children and adults!”
“Be willing and open to the idea of learning in other settings,” said Hoseman. “Consider how outdoor time can be an anecdote for many challenges. Get outside with your children and follow their lead. Look closely at the natural world together and be curious!
“Wonder and wander with your child,” Kiesau noted. “Observe and ask but don’t jump to give answers. Discover together. Engage in lots of big body movement and healthy risk taking that builds confidence and common sense, like tree climbing, puddle jumping, barefoot walking, log balancing and more.”
The team also hopes that others will feel empowered to tackle the roles in education that have been traditionally held by men and be able to work towards more unique experiences in education.
“Go for it!” Hoseman said when asked what kind of advice she’d give others looking to take on similar roles in education traditionally held by men. “Link arms with people who care about the same ideas for children and who are willing to take risks for those goals. Remember that you alone can’t ‘do it all.’ Challenges are best endured with others to help, even simply as thought partners or encouragers.”To learn more about Kickapoo Valley Forest School you can check them out on their website at www.Kickapoovalleyforestschool.org.