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School of Environmental Studies

School of Environmental Studies (”Zoo School”), Apple Valley, MN

School for Environmental Studies (SES), affectionately known as “Zoo School”, is an optional high school in Apple Valley, Minnesota. It is the result of a unique partnership developed between ISD 196, the Minnesota Zoological Gardens and the City of Apple Valley with support from Dakota County and the State of Minnesota. With a focus on mentorship/internship programs developed through the Zoo and the community, the building incorporates environmental products, energy efficient systems, and with the surrounding site, serves as both an interpretive center and living laboratory for students and visitors alike.

Dan Bodette, the school’s principal, considers the environmental focus of the school. “Everyone knows it and understands it, I think. But we want to study some of the long-term effects we’re having on the environment as this becomes a more global focus, and examine both sides of the coin through this environmental lens.”

When Bodette and his colleagues began researching other schools, they realized this was going to necessitate pioneering efforts. He recalls not finding much out there in the way of similar models fourteen years ago. “It’s very different today with all kinds of charter schools and magnet schools, but in the early 1990s there were only a few models of this kind. We brought together a lot of the pioneers here in the district. It involved a lot of ground-breaking, a lot of risk-taking. Not one of us would go back to the old setting though.”

One reason the staff feels this way is due to the degree of personalization, another unique element at SES. Bodette believes this sets a school climate that promotes positive interactions. “Our school is 400 students and we found this was the ideal size. No one can be anonymous, so we don’t deal with many of the things that traditional schools deal with.”

A third important piece is the architecture. Architect Bruce Jilk with HGA was commissioned to design the school and given strict budgetary parameters: the per-pupil costs to build and operate the school could not exceed those of other high schools in the district. The result: a 68,000 square foot (6,300 m) building, completed in 1994 for $5,420,000, or $80 per square foot ($860/m).

Zoo School Sketch
Zoo School Sketch

The school literally serves as 3-dimensional textbook – the architecture teaches students about sustainability, recycled material, gravity, wind and solar power, and other renewable energy. “We wanted to school to be designed with the student in mind. We challenged our architects to meet the students’ needs which is why you find a lot of flexible, wide open spaces.” Student workstations look like typical office cubicles, with storage and books and other study accessories. The building gives the school a family feeling.

Overlooking Birch Pond to the southeast, the school’s communal spaces are grouped to form the heart of the school. A multi-use commons and forum space functions as student commons, gallery, cafeteria, conference center, auditorium and showplace. A somewhat separate IMC acts as central resource for all functions with a focus on technology.

Four small learning communities, or “houses”, overlook these central spaces sharing views out to Birch Pond and northwest to the woods and prairie beyond. The central building block of Jilk’s design is the student workstation (desk with bulletin board and storage area). This feature simultaneously meets two objectives: that students take on the role of workers (the workstation resembles an office cubicle) and that the learning environment promote a sense of identity (students can decorate workstations to reflect personal tastes). Each house supports 10 ten-student workstations grouped around a central lecture/resource space designed to house two large group learning settings. A science lab, teacher planning room, convertible conference room and classroom round out each house. While athletic and music education are offered off-site, unique specialization opportunities in the school are a botany/zoology laboratory, art/construction studio, multi-media and video studio and outdoor roof terrace and plaza workshops.

Bodette explains that the school offers an interdisciplinary environment where the students can explore all kinds of different subjects. “The questions that arise dictate the curriculum. Whatever is going on in the world, whatever students want to know about and relate to… that drives the curriculum. In a traditional setting, it’s driven by a textbook.”

SES is known for its innovative, interdisciplinary, and experiential curriculum. Thematic Studies, also referred to as “House”, combines English, environmental science, and social studies into a three-hour-long daily class which is team-taught. These courses are connected by broad themes related to essential understanding of the environment and related issues. As students work to gain understanding of the themes, they complete projects and assignments that lead to relevant, real world assessment of their progress.

Every trimester each student enrolls in an Intensive Theme course. During the seven-day intensive theme time period all other courses are discontinued allowing SES students to study one subject in-depth. Some Intensive Theme course are also field experiences, involving student travel to locations like South Africa, Iceland, Costa Rica and the Minnesota boundary waters.
“Over time we’ve made adjustments. Foremost, we believe students always come first. We ask each other, how can we make learning engaging? How can students find learning meaningful? And we just adjust as we go. It seems sometimes students are the afterthought in traditional settings.”

Edutopia Video: School of Environmental Studies: Taking Class Outdoors

By Clare Vogel, Editor | © 2009


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