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WI: Embracing a spirit of innovation at Walden III


Principal Bob Holzem signs Green and Healthy School pledge while students look on.

Summary: This small magnet school starts with the assumption that all students are responsible for their learning even though many who attend aren't in the mainstream at other schools. Nevertheless, high expectations, personal guidance, and active parent involvement help students grow into this responsibility. Walden's goal is to have a student body that mirrors the district's overall demographics regardless of student ability, and all students rise to the challenge outscoring both district and state averages on Wisconsin's state test.

Inside an aging building a few blocks from downtown Racine, Wisconsin, grows an island of innovation, Walden III Middle and High School. Students at Walden III—a unique magnet school with about 525 students—are collaborating to make the environment in their school and the surrounding community better. The school’s motto is “Walden . . . in the process of discovery,” and students are currently working to discover how to foster environmental awareness and leave a legacy for future students, notes Principal Bob Holzem.

Going Green

Using grant funds, students are working to meet the criteria for the Wisconsin Green and Healthy Schools program. They have completed the first two steps: Pledging

District characteristics
Name: Walden III Middle and High School
State: Wisconsin
Type: Urban
Grades: 6–12

Enrollment: Middle school: 220
                  High school: 269

Students per teacher: Middle school: 19.1
                                    High school: 22.4

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: Middle 15.5%
                                                High 8.9%
English language learners: n.a.
Students with disabilities: n.a.
White: Middle 74.5% High 81.4%
Black: Middle 10% High 7.8%
Hispanic: Middle 12.3% High 8.9%
Asian/Pacific Islander: Middle 3.2% High 0.7%
American Indian/Alaska Native: High 1.1%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com  
their commitment and performing a schoolwide self-assessment in areas such as water conservation, waste recycling, energy efficiency, and indoor air quality. The third step is developing action projects based on the assessment results.

Already, students have improved the recycling efforts at Walden and sold energy efficient light bulbs. With the profit from the sale, the green school team bought extra light bulbs to give to neighborhood homes around Walden along with information on promoting energy efficiency. Future action steps will depend on new grant funding. Possibilities include paving the school parking lot with permeable bricks to allow water to drain back into the soil, replacing windows for energy efficiency in part of the building that was constructed in 1860, and creating a community garden across the street from the school.

The environmental focus forges connections to the original Walden and Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalism, notes senior Chelsea Kaufman, who hopes to become a writer. She embraces the concept that “every living creature is entwined and kind of the same being.” Chelsea says the green school activities meet “our economic responsibility, our educational responsibility, and our humanistic responsibility.”

Becoming responsible

Responsibility is actively promoted at the school, says Thomas Rutkowski, an English teacher who initiated the green school project. “One of the best things about Walden is that it starts with the assumption that kids are responsible, and they are treated that way. They are given responsibility, and they grow into it.”

“Sometimes students who come to Walden aren’t necessarily in the mainstream at other schools,” notes Rebecca Kaufman, Chelsea’s mom and president of the Walden III Parent Teacher Student Association. “When they’re accepted and teachers expect them to do well, they rise to the occasion. When students leave Walden, they tend to be outspoken. They tend to be leaders.”

As a magnet school, Walden draws students from all parts of the Racine Unified School District. Students have to apply to attend; therefore, they are all on campus by choice. For the sixth grade class entering in fall 2007, Holzem has about 150 applications for seventy-five slots. In filling those slots, the school mirrors the district’s overall demographics—including special education, male–female, and majority–minority percentages.

“They’re [students] not selected on the basis of grades or test scores,” notes Rutkowski. The range of abilities can be a challenge but also has advantages. Students who might be considered different in traditional schools feel safe and accepted at Walden III, he says.

Students agree that the school’s small size breeds trust, familiarity, and a family atmosphere. Students, teachers, and administrators call each other by first name. James Bennett, a senior involved in the green schools project, says Walden’s teachers “help to inspire kids and guide them on what they want to do as individuals.”

James is planning to attend a business university in the fall, with hopes of a career in entertainment and sports management. When he got involved in the green school project, he says, “I could care less about green politics or recycling. I really had no taste for it. What got me interested was talking to local politicians.” James now has an appreciation for environmental awareness and is excited about his experiences with “real world stuff that no other high school offers.”

Students working collaboratively on the project agree that they have gained practical knowledge. “Other schools teach you how to be a student or how to learn. Walden teaches you how to be a person and how to live,” Chelsea says. “Your uniqueness and talents are explored and allowed to be fully realized.”

Each student gets personal guidance from a home group teacher, who also helps with scheduling and conferences. Home groups have about twenty students, and they meet daily. In this way, the students and their home group teacher get to know each other. The benefit for the student is that “You’ve got an adult who you learn to trust and work with, who’s your go-to person,” Holzem says. “It can make even a small place like this more do-able and a better place for those kids.”

Students do their part

Much of the school’s success “is because of the small school environment and the close relationship with the students,” asserts Sue Kutz, president of the Board of Education for the Racine Unified School District. Teachers’ mentoring relationships with students are an important element, she says.

Students coming to Walden are expected to do their part to make the school a friendly, positive place to learn. They also commit to personal responsibility, setting their own learning goals, resolving their problems in a nonviolent way, and collecting evidence of their own learning. By promoting responsibility and a family-like atmosphere, teachers and administrators help their students become more engaged in their learning.

Graduation requirements

In order to graduate from Walden III High School, seniors must complete an authentic form of assessment called the Rite of Passage Experience™, or ROPE®. The ROPE® class prepares prospective graduates to demonstrate their mastery in eleven areas:

  • English
  • Fine arts
  • GeographyHuman relations
  • Mathematics
  • Personal proficiency
  • Physical challenge
  • Reading competency
  • Science
  • U.S. government
  • U.S. history

To graduate, each student must produce a written portfolio, including a collection of course work and subject-specific essays; a senior thesis, which the student must defend in front of a committee; and oral presentations about particular subject areas. This process builds students’ confidence in their academic achievement and life skills, Holzem says. “When they complete the ROPE® challenge, you see the sense of accomplishment they have in their faces and in their families’ faces.”

Walden students seem to respond well to the expectations of personal and academic responsibility along with daily support from home group teachers. Compared to other schools in the district, “the truancy rate is the lowest, and the graduation rate is the highest,” Holzem points out. Walden students also scored above both the district and state averages on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations (WKCE) (see Chart 1).




Learning progress is discussed with home group teachers at quarterly conferences, and students plan their schedules at that time also. To allow for more variety in class schedules, a course might span one quarter, one semester, or one school year. The frequent conferences work well to promote student success, Holzem says.

In some ways, the Walden philosophy has parallels to the school board’s governance approach, which emphasizes increased freedom based on responsibility and accountability. Instead of micromanaging the operation of the schools, the board members trust the superintendent to plan the district’s programs and curriculum. The board’s role then is to monitor policies and hold the superintendent accountable. This type of policy governance “is kind of on the cutting edge for board governance,” Kutz notes. The board focuses on ends rather than means, and its long-term goals are called “ends policies”:

  • The mega end—educate all students to succeed
  • Academic achievement
  • Workplace skills
  • Global citizenship
  • Life skills

Walden’s focus on individual students could also be viewed as an ends policy. Students are free to explore learning in their own way as they develop their interests and talents. Chelsea Kaufman shares what her experiences at Walden have taught her: “Don’t be afraid to try something different or look at something from a different perspective. Don’t be afraid to dream or to change.” For Walden students, the process of discovery continues.

Lessons learned
    Principal Bob Holzem, plain old “Bob” to teachers and students, says the following elements work well for Walden III:
  • The small size of the school allows students and staff to get to know each other better.
  • Emphasis on individual responsibility for learning, nonviolent resolution of problems, and commitment to attendance and completion of work.
  • Home groups meet daily, allowing teachers to provide regular support and guidance to students.
  • Quarterly conferences provide personalized scheduling for students and let them have more curriculum choices, including quarter- and semester-long courses.
  • Rite of Passage Experience serves as authentic assessment for graduation.


Bob Holzem
(262) 664-6251

This story was written by Terrey Hatcher Quindlen, a freelance writer living in Hampstead, North Carolina. Quindlen has been writing about education issues for five years.

Posted: July 1, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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