Conserve School teaches environmental ethics and leadership

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

LAND O' LAKES, Wis. (AP) -- Even on a rainy autumn afternoon, Conserve School is breathtakingly beautiful -- rippling with clear lakes, blazing with golden maples, cushioned with sphagnum moss bogs where wine red pitcher plants capture insects.

Inviting exploration, 22 miles of trails wind up, down and around the knolls and kettles of glacial moraine.

At a distance, a porcupine climbs down the trunk of a dead birch. A nearer tree reveals the nest of a pileated woodpecker. A doe and fawn raise their heads at a van of humans bumping along a grassy track.

Here, the landscape is the school.

Indoor facilities -- $61 million worth of newly constructed, environmentally sound classrooms, residences, recreation halls and a sewage treatment plant -- all offer ''a place to return to confer on our field notes,'' says development director Daniel Lee.

The school is located on a private preserve known as Lowenwood -- 1,200 acres of forest, wetlands and seven lakes that was a rich man's haven.

Until his 1996 death, James Lowenstine, chairman of the board and president of Central Steel & Wire Co. in Chicago, retreated to Lowenwood, which borders the Sylvania Wilderness of Ottawa National Forest in Michigan. In 1965, he envisioned a school.

Now it is his legacy -- a private, residential, coeducational school where students in grades nine to 12 learn environmental ethics, stewardship and leadership.

''We are focused on sustainability,'' says school director John Friedrick, ''the ability for us to be sensitive to the needs of other creatures so we live in harmony. Yet we believe that in our type of conservation, there is room for both loggers and tree huggers.''

There is also room, Friedrick says, for students whose parents find the school's annual cost of $25,000 as jaw-dropping as its jewel-like setting.

Considering that the cost includes tuition, room, board, all textbooks, lab supplies, individual computers, health services and school-sponsored activities, the cost compares to tuition at such nonresidential prep schools as Brookfield Academy ($10,390) or University School of Milwaukee ($12,960).

However, Friedrick points out that Lowenstine endowed not only Conserve School but also hefty academic and need-based scholarship funds.

''We anticipate that we will be granting between $250,000 and $500,000 in scholarships each year,'' he says.

The first 160 students will not arrive until next fall.

However, most teachers already have moved into three-bedroom apartments located at the hubs of residence halls where they will serve as house parents, each for a wing of 10 students.

''We're ordering library books, getting to know each other and discovering the wealth of teaching materials here on the land,'' says biologist Patti Soderberg.

Teachers are developing the interdisciplinary curriculum that will be taught by teams working together to guide hands-on exploration. The staff is also generating excitement that is proving infectious to prospective students.

Keally Cieslik, 12, of Madison, is only in seventh grade at Madison Country Day School this year, but she already has applied to enter Conserve School in fall 2003.

''I met such great people when I visited,'' she says, ''and they sounded so interested in helping students be involved in fun, interesting activities, and I love the North Woods.''

For example, Friedrick wants each incoming freshman to adopt an organism on which that student will become the resident expert. All research will be compiled into a database available not only to present staff and students but also to future generations.

''We want to develop a kind of encyclopedia of the North Woods,'' says Stefan Anderson, head of admissions.

Already the resident staff has organized a grocery cooperative to purchase food grown in Wisconsin by farmers whose practices protect the environment.

''We want to practice what we're preaching,'' says Anderson.

The conservation ethic embraced by the founder has influenced every aspect of the school's development. Language offerings in Chinese and Spanish reflect areas of the world that are second and third to the United States as global polluters, Friedrick says.

To ensure that the footprint of the 300,000 square-foot Lowenstine Academic Center was not one inch larger than necessary, architect James Blomquist of Iron Mountain, Mich., carefully oversaw clearing of the site. The finished building is no farther than 5 feet from mature trees.

Any trees cut for construction were milled into lumber used in flooring or saved for future student projects. Windows allow maximum use of daylight, and interior lights turn off when sensors no longer detect movement.

In the spacious central gathering space of the academic building, a waterfall provides interior humidity and feeds a pool for aquatic plants and animals.

Athletic fields are located in a clearing created by a natural blow-down, the only place on campus with a planted lawn.

Even sewage treatment teaches. Wastewater is cleansed by a so-called Green Machine. Inside a structure that looks and smells like a greenhouse, bacteria and plants remove contaminants from the water without chemicals.

''At this point,'' Soderberg tells visitors at the system's end point, ''the water is actually drinkable, but we run it through the entire system again before releasing it to irrigate the land around this building.'' Nearby microscopes will allow students to monitor the process as they study such things as how many heavy metals in wastewater are absorbed by blooming plants.

Visitors and prospective students are introduced to the school by teams of staff members.

''Every time we give a tour,'' says geologist Paul McLeod, ''we discover something new about the land itself.''

Teachers also are learning the trails, ''although it's hard to get lost,'' Anderson says.

At each intersection, he explains, a bear's head carved by a local sculptor is fixed to a tree about 20 feet from the ground.

''The bear's nose always points toward the campus center,'' he says, adding that everything at that center, by design, points in turn to the vast living and learning space outside.

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