Meet the principal in his office

Mike Mullen’s ‘office’ is the great outdoors, where he leads the school that makes nature a classroom
Ozaukee Press

Mike Mullen has spent nearly 30 years in education, but he never saw anything like his new school.

After retiring as a teacher and administrator in a traditional school setting, the Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School brought him back to education, first as board member and then as principal.

He is entering his second year as head of the school, which he said fosters learning in ways he never experienced.

While silent reading doesn’t always go over well inside a brick-and-mortar classroom, ROLES has an alternative that works like a charm.

“Kids in hammocks will read forever,” Mullen said. “The engagement is extremely high.”

Students spend most of their time outside at ROLES and interact with nature differently than at other schools. Children are not discouraged from picking up sticks, for example, but are taught how to do it safely instead.

“The things we keep kids from doing at a brick-and-mortar school is what we promote here,” Mullen said.

“Students don’t learn when we say they can’t do something,” kindergarten teacher Katie Popp said.

Teachers build rapport with students while hiking on trails, often five to seven miles per day. Some children run ahead while others take their time, and that’s OK.

“We have the ability to stop and wonder if we observe something,” Popp said.

One class last year stopped to watch a snake eat a frog, and in another class students fell in love with the way a woodcock walked. The rest of the year they would often break into the “walk like a woodcock” dance, fourth-grade teacher Walter Sams said.

Long walks before math and reading helps keep fidgety children in check, second-grade teacher Cindy Raimer said.

After being allowed to walk at their own pace, “They’re more ready to learn when they get to point B,” she said.

They’re also allowed to talk.

“Students aren’t made for zero voices,” Popp said.

Those hikes also allow teachers to form relationships with their students in ways they could not inside a building.

As a result, Mullen said, “There’s a sense of community in the classroom like no other — nothing like I’ve ever seen.”

Mullen has seen much, both in the public educational system and as a firefighter out west.

He fell in love with the natural world as a child growing up in Dubuque, Iowa. His family had a cottage, and hunting, fishing and spending time outside became staples of Mullen’s life.

When it came time to select a field of study, his high school guidance counselor told Mullen his love of the outdoors could become a career.

He earned a degree in forestry from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1986 and moved to Idaho, where he worked as a firefighter in several Western states for eight years. He knows what it’s like to be knocked off a cliff by slurry moving at 60 mph. He also was president of a chapter of the Idaho Conservation League.

After sustaining an injury while firefighting, Mullen said, “We might need to find a safer career.”

Most of his roles as a firefighter had a teaching component, so education “seemed like a natural fit,” he said.

He earned a master’s degree in science education from the University of Iowa and embarked on a 20-year teaching career at Ben Franklin Elementary School in Menomonee Falls. He shared his passion for the environment with his students by having them participate in water testing, do research on the effects of lead and mercury in fish and plant research with NASA.

He served as a summer school principal and associate principal for two years, then became principal at Canterbury Elementary in Greendale for five years, where he helped establish district recycling and composting programs.

Mullen then retired and was plenty happy, but ROLES offered an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

Mullen had worked with Riveredge throughout his educational career and had a vision for what the school that started with a $700,000 federal grant could become.

“They were growing and needed a principal,” he said.

While starting a charter school presents a challenge, Mullen said, not being locked into a bell schedule that requires a change in subjects every 50 minutes was attractive. The fact that the school combined his two passions in life — the environment and education — was irresistible.

Mullen and the teachers aren’t the only ones who appreciate a less-structured environment that allows the order of subjects taught in any given school day to flip if a new learning opportunity arises.

Students don’t want to miss school. One who contracted poison ivy was excited to return, and many didn’t want the school year to end. Parents send their children to the school, which is part of the Northern Ozaukee School District, from miles around.

“Our parents are extremely engaged,” he said. “It’s amazing. I get to know them all by name.”

The school is capped at 108 students, and Mullen said the waiting list might be longer than that. Kindergarten alone has 37 families waiting to enroll.

ROLES isn’t the first school of its kind but it’s unique to the area.

“Hands-on nature-based learning works, and we’re going to prove that,” Mullen said.

Mullen’s biggest interests outside school still have him outdoors hunting and fishing.

“So when I’m not outside, I’m outside,” he said.

Giving back is another passion. Mullen helped found the nonprofit organization Pivotal Directions that takes teenagers on 10-day trips to build homes and do other service work for the “poorest of the poor” in Jamaica. That experience helping others, he said, is one of the primary reasons his son is going into the medical field.

Mullen’s wife is an audiologist and his daughter works as a psychologist.

For more information on ROLES, visit



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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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Port Washington, WI 53074
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