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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee's North Division High School creates 'green' schoolyard with storm water management

MPS senior Dontae Luttrell (left) next to North Division's tennis courts, talking with Justin Hegarty (right) with Reflo.  The Milwaukee-based nonprofit helps coordinate schoolyard transformations to replace pavement with healthier, storm water-managing landscapes.
Susan Bence
MPS senior Dontae Luttrell (left) next to North Division's tennis courts, talking with Justin Hegarty (right) with Reflo. The Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Reflo, helps coordinate schoolyard transformations to replace asphalt with healthier, storm water-managing landscapes.

There's a movement afoot to create greener schoolyards, including among Milwaukee Public Schools. A local nonprofit called Reflo helps coordinate multiple community partners that help transformations happen.

Among more than two dozen MPS schools, North Division High School has begun reimagining the future of what are often paved and underused spaces.

>> Milwaukee School Playground Is Designed To Manage Stormwater & Create Outdoor Classroom

In between phone calls, Principal Keith Carrington took a moment to share his excitement for what he calls North Division High School's green school's redevelopment project.

"North Division has always had a rich legacy. So we're trying to build upon that legacy," Carrington said. "Showing students about green jobs and green infrastructure and how those things really tie together in the community. It's also appealing to the eye."

Carrington said the idea of getting students breathing fresh air was appealing three years ago when North Division started planning. It’s even more attractive as students have returned to school this fall.

“Students were actually integrally involved in the design, the proposal and the execution."

Carrington said North Division senior Dontae Luttrell was a main cog in the implementation of the ideas. Luttrell was selected as the student lead for the project. Luttrell met WUWM's Susan Bence outside of North Division’s main entrance on Center Street for a grand green tour.

“Let’s start here. So this is the pickup area for people that get dropped off and picked up by their parents,” Luttrell said.

Susan Bence
A glimpse of North Division's north entrance area. The new mural represents North Division's 'Legacy Strong, Future Ready' motto.

Artfully simple benches made of wood that might otherwise end up in a landfill are situated along a curved path. The path material is designed to absorb rain water as are the native grasses that are taking root.

Lutrell led us to the school’s west wall. “Right here we have our outdoor classroom and it has the picnic tables, which are anchored to the ground and it has native prairie plants,” Luttrell said.

The outdoor classroom and native grasses replace what used to be asphalt and cement.

Around the back of North Division, there’s another multipurpose area with rainwater-absorbing plantings. Luttrell calls it the amphitheater.

amph 3.jpeg
North Division's amphitheater during construction.

“I call it this because what do you hear? You don’t hear no cars. You hear the cars up there, you don’t hear the cars back here. It’s the quiet part, you know. You can get some chill time back here, can relax, can hear the birds and not hear the cars,” Luttrell said.

West of the school we passed the tennis courts where a massive storm water management system was created.

Pavers along the courts are designed to absorb rain, followed by a series of native plants. Beyond the plants is a wide promenade — a paved walkway flanked by trees which adds to storm water control.

The underground cistern provides that extra measure of flood protection.

cistern 3.jpeg
Dontae Luttrell helping the team install underground cistern next to North Division's tennis courts.

“It’s a very heavy plastic and it’s like the shape of a tunnel. I helped put it underground,” Luttrell said proudly.

But his very favorite is the running track at the western edge of the North Division campus. “It’s made out of a like a rubbery material, you know, like the gymnastic feels like you’re running on a mat,” Luttrell said.

Susan Bence
Dontae Luttrell at the edge of school's running track.

The old track used to flood, but with some relatively modest adjustments, rainwater now gathers in the grassy interior. Luttrell is proud of the current track.

“Every morning I come to school, I see community walking on the track or running, taking a little jog, trying to get their morning exercise. And it looks very, very clean. I really like it,” Luttrell said.

Lutrell then led the way inside to the second floor and the school’s neglected greenhouse — although Catherine Bronikowski said that’s changes will happen soon. Bronikowski chairs the math department and is the student/faculty liaison of what's called the North Division green team.

“The vision is that we would be growing seedlings. And there are a couple of firms that would be purchasing the seedlings from us," Bronikowski said. "We would grow over the winter for spring. And we’re thinking big too — you know, there’s a farmers market, Fondy, we could do something there.”

The school raised $465,000 to revitalize this greenhouse and finance the green infrastructure and outdoor gathering spaces.

Bronikowski said they won’t stop there, as North Division’s master plan calls for a green roof with solar panels to boot.

Bronikowski said students are already blown away with the plans. “I tell you, the outside classrooms, they’re like ‘can we eat lunch out here.’ It really made an impression on them that somebody cares. I think that’s the biggest thing — that it’s really been happening,” Bronikowski said.

Susan Bence
North Division teacher Catherine Bronikowski said the school's greenhouse is about to come back to life.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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