Fund For Lake Michigan

Green and Healthy Schoolyards for Milwaukee’s Next Generation

Michael Timm – Inspirational work takes place at our public schools every day, but thanks to the nonprofit Reflo’s Green & Healthy Schools program, that groundbreaking work is happening outside of the classroom as well. Where once stood a sea of asphalt you will now find a natural oasis, but just below the surface lies something much more impactful — thousands of gallons of stormwater retention and untold opportunity for Milwaukee students.

Schoolyard Redevelopment at Hawley Environmental School.

Fund for Lake Michigan has supported these green schoolyard projects since 2015, conferring sizable stormwater management benefits through green infrastructure. The first four projects have removed over 85,000 square feet of asphalt at four schools, but this is just the beginning of a multiyear, multimillion dollar collaborative effort also supported by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.  

The schools undergoing these transformations are all part of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), Wisconsin’s largest school district serving over 74,000 students, composed of over 89% students of color and some 80% economically disadvantaged. 

Every time it rains, these first four schoolyards capture a staggering 180,000 gallons of runoff and keep polluted water out of Lake Michigan. Add to this the outlook for the students and teachers, who year after year will benefit from the new green space and outdoor learning opportunities, and the long-term ecological and educational benefits become clear.

These successful MPS projects exemplify a model process characterized by inclusivity, genuine stakeholder engagement, and honoring commitments.

“I have been at Longfellow since the beginning of the Schoolyard Redevelopment Project and at first I was skeptical that all of these changes would actually happen. Now [three years later] it’s amazing to see the progress and new playground,” said one faculty member at H.W. Longfellow School, where construction was completed in late 2019.

The schoolyard redevelopments are coupled with water curricular connections for teachers.

“It takes a lot of people and a lot of effort to clean our water,” said another Longfellow teacher, after leading her students in one of the water curricular activities. “Sometimes we take the good things we have for granted. I hope my students go home and share how important the lake is and how lucky we are to have Lake Michigan.”

Plans are underway to support green infrastructure at 15 new schools over the next three years. This means that with the Fund’s ongoing support, MPS is positioned to manage an additional 750,000 gallons of stormwater per rain event while expanding opportunities for outdoor education, recreation, and health for Milwaukee’s youngest and most vulnerable population. 

“Our investments in Green & Healthy Schools are already yielding significant economic, social, and environmental benefits, and the returns will only grow over time,” said Vicki Elkin, Executive Director of the Fund for Lake Michigan. “The program is a great example of how water quality and equity can go hand-in-hand.” 

While an outsider may just see a new playground (albeit a really cool one), they’re actually looking at the result of newfound partnerships, years of community engagement, and a whole lot of science, engineering, and art. Green and healthy schoolyards are strategic investments, building space for our environment to heal and for our children to grow. The next generation of water leaders is taking shape and getting outside, ready to build a more equitable and sustainable future for us all.

Schoolyard redevelopment at Starms Early Childhood Center