The occasion was billed as "Principal for a Day," but for some Toki Middle School students, it was a day to feel like king of the forest.
The class of 22 eighth-graders spent the better part of their science class Tuesday in the woods outside their school to complete a tree identification exercise. Alongside them was the state's top natural resources official, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank, and two foresters from LEAF, an education program funded by a DNR grant and housed at UW-Stevens Point.
"This really is a gem," Gretchen Marshall, a forestry and outdoor education specialist for LEAF, said about the five-acre woodland adjacent to the Toki parking lot. "It's rare to have a woods outside a school in an urban area like this."
The woods were a primary reason that the DNR last summer decided to partner with Toki through the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools Adopt-a-School program. DNR employees conducted a school-supply drive for Toki at the start of the school year, but the agency-school relationship officially kicked off with Frank's visit Tuesday, part of the foundation's "Principal for a Day" program.
"Youth education has always been a very important part of our mission," said Frank, who spent another part of his morning shadowing Toki Principal Nicole Schaefer and attending a technology and engineering class at Toki.
"In deciding to adopt a school, what we were looking at is what we can do at the DNR to work collaboratively with the school and ultimately help the kids be successful, and also expose them to outdoor education and environmental education," Frank said. "We're approaching this as, ‘What can we do for you?' We have a lot of resources at the DNR that can be utilized here. And they have this great resource out here right in their backyard, this wonderful woods that provides a lot of teaching opportunities."
Armed with a checklist to help them identify a tree marked "mystery tree #3," eighth-graders Kennedy Allison and Beth James studied branching patterns and leaf markings.
"It's exciting because it's not in the classroom, so it's hands-on work," Kennedy said of the day's exercise.
Principal for a Day drew 78 business and community leaders to shadow principals across the Madison School District. Donna Katen-Bahensky, president and CEO of UW Hospital and Clinics was Superintendent for a Day, shadowing Superintendent Dan Nerad. The firsthand look at Madison classrooms was followed by a luncheon and an address by Nerad about the importance of school-community partnerships.
There are more than two dozen Adopt-a-School programs in Madison public schools, and many of them are partnerships with government agencies, said Martha Vukelich-Austin, president of the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools.