A classroom as big as the outdoors

Riveredge Nature Center opens cutting-edge school designed to spark the imaginations of students by teaching them everything from science to reading outside

CHILDREN ATTENDING Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School, or ROLES, tried out their “reading nook” hammocks last week during an open house. The school, which opened for its first year on Tuesday, will conduct classes outdoors year-round. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

The new Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School, or ROLES, opened its doors on Tuesday for the first day of school and let all the kids out.

Because that’s what the school is designed to do.

ROLES is one of the few outdoor learning schools in the state, in which classes will be held outdoors all year long, even in rain and snow.

“The excitement level is through the roof,” ROLES Lead Teacher Jessica Tipkemper said.

ROLES has a first-time enrollment of 70 children from kindergarten through fourth grade. The school will likely add a fifth grade next year.

Besides Tipkemper, who will teach a combined third and fourth grade, the school employs three other teachers: Sarah Barron and Kayla Buser, kindergarten and first grade; and Ashley Gauger, second grade.

ROLES was a product of the Riveredge Nature Center near Newburg in the Town of Saukville and is a charter school of the Northern Ozaukee School District in Fredonia.

“It allows us to pursue our mission and provides options for parents and students in Ozaukee County and beyond,” said Ted Neitzke, president of the Riveredge Nature Center’s board of directors and one of the forces behind creation of the school.

Neitzke, a Port Washington resident, is chief executive officer of the Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) 6, an Oshkosh-based consortium of 39 school districts in Dodge, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Outagamie, Washington, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago counties.

He helped bring the outdoor learning concept to Riveredge when as superintendent of the West Bend School District he collaborated with the Kettle Moraine YMCA and Riveredge to create an outdoor 4K school.

“Every day they go outside no matter what the weather is. They wear jump suits and have recess in the rain and the snow,” he said. “It’s everything you could never do in the public schools.”

Riveredge leaders took what they learned from the 4K school and applied it to a school like ROLES. 

But first they asked some kids.

“Sometimes very smart adults get together in a room and try to figure things out,” he said. “We brought in some bright kids who grew up going to Riveredge and asked them what they want the school to be.”

Those “bright kids” included his own daughter Grace, who is now a freshman at Port Washington High School.

When the concept was first introduced to the Northern Ozaukee School District and written about in Ozaukee Press, Riveredge officials were excited about the response, Neitzke said 

“The next day (after the Press article ran) the phones and Facebook blew up,” he said. “It reinforced what we had hoped. People recognized the dream and vision were real. People wanted to go to a place that doesn’t exist yet.”

More than 100 children from 20 different school districts applied to the school. In the end, 70 students from 15 districts were selected through a lottery, with the West Bend district having the greatest representation.

The school still has two openings available, one for second grade and one in third/fourth grade.

“I’m a proponent of allowing kids to get into an environment where they want to grow,” Neitzke said. 

And while outdoor learning, he believes, encourages children to explore more, he acknowledged that it may not work for every child enrolled in the school. 

“Outdoor learning is not for everybody. Indoor learning is not for everybody,” he said.

“There is a slight risk that their going to a school without walls is so different, but if it’s not working, they (the teachers and staff) will be able to pivot immediately,” Neitzke said.

“I’ve been in education for 25 years,” he said. “When you fail, you try to fail forward. Our hope is that (ROLES) will significantly disrupt how we view education.

“The ultimate goal is to spread our influence. It will be fun to watch.”

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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