2021 Election of State Superintendent of Public Instruction: Primary

The Wisconsin State Superintendent primary election will be held Tuesday, February 16th, 2021.

The final election will be held Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction, sometimes referred to as the State Superintendent of Schools, is a constitutional officer within the executive branch of the Wisconsin state government, and acts as the executive head of the Department of Public Instruction.

WAEE has asked all seven candidates about their views on environmental education. Their responses are listed below. If a candidate’s reply is not listed, this indicates that they did not reply to the WAEE inquiry as of January 31, 2021.

Question 1:

What is your personal experience with environmental education? How has outdoor learning and natural resource education influenced you as an educator and administrator? 

Sheila Briggs
“I’ve spent the majority of my life here in Wisconsin. I respect and value the state’s conservation traditions and rich history. And I believe they are also the key to our future success. Whether it’s spending time at the MacKenzie Center or visiting the many marshes and prairies, it is critical that we teach our youth to love and care for our environment. My own family has spent many a summer backpacking, camping, hiking, snowboarding, canoeing and fishing all across Wisconsin. My children relished in completing their junior ranger booklets to earn a new patch to sew on their vests every season. Learning about the environment and the beauty of the critters and plants we would encounter are probably their fondest memories of childhood. Not only did they enjoy our family camping trips, I noticed that when our family was in nature, the kids were more inquisitive, more thoughtful, and patient…and generally got along better. They would play for hours by the lake catching frogs and snakes with their headlamps turned to red as to not disturb the wildlife. All of our children need more opportunities to be in nature–it is both good for our planet…and for our children.

As an educator, I believe we need to have a strong core curriculum in place for literacy and mathematics, but we also need to provide our kids with a well-rounded education that includes science, social studies, fine arts, world languages and learning about our environment. Over the years, our laser focus on improving test scores has had unintended consequences. We’ve reduced play-based learning, squeezed out science, and even limited the hands-on activities that keep our kids asking questions about the world around them. Our overemphasis on testing has caused our kids to feel stressed out, our educators to leave the profession, and our test scores to decline. We have often reduced or eliminated recess, field trips, and other project based learning. We are in desperate need of a change.

Over the years, I have always had a deep affinity for science and environmental education. As a teacher, we took care of plants and animals in our classroom, which taught great lessons in caring for our environment, and the ecosystem around us. As a principal, I supported learning that was hands-on and experiential–including field trips to the forest, the farm, the marsh. At the state level, I oversee environmental education–ensuring we have strong standards to guide and support our schools and districts in ensuring they incorporate environmental education into their curriculum. We also lead the work on the Green and Healthy Schools–not only as a way to recognize schools doing excellent work in this area, but also as an educational opportunity to guide schools in doing better work, to qualify for this recognition.”

Joe Fenrick
“Science education and environmental science education is not just baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, robots, or mixing chemicals together. It’s not simply memorizing the periodic table, dissecting animals, or measuring gravity. It is also communicating with other scientists, teachers, and students. It’s writing laboratory reports, reading scientific journals and the application of math toward the world. It’s making discoveries, advancing knowledge, and furthering minds.

Every time students perform an experiment for the first time, they are creating something that did not exist in their wheelhouse. Cultivating curiosity through hands-on learning, experiments, or demonstrations is important, invigorating, and empowering. Students are full of questions, looking for answers and are ready to perform the necessary activities to acquire the knowledge.

I am an environmental science educator, currently in my 15th year of teaching at Fond du Lac High School having taught environmental science, environmental geology, and ecology. During my 15 years I have helped expand the classroom into the outdoors with my classes planting an 11 acre prairie, licensing our school ponds as a fish farm and raising fish, planting trees, and studying how everything in the ecosystem is interconnected. I also advise the Environmental
Awareness Club. The club has grown under my leadership from 10 members 12 years ago to over 200 members today, making it one of the largest clubs at Fond du Lac High School.

“Trees for Tomorrow” is a program that I continue to develop and evolve. Each year Fond du Lac High School’s Environmental Science Club partners with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to provide a tree to every fourth-grade student in the Fond du Lac School District. These trees are distributed each year on Arbor Day as we celebrate the benefits that trees provide us. It is overwhelming to see the tremendous support from each of the elementary schools as well as the smiles on the students faces when they are handed their own tree. Being the adviser of the Environmental Science Club, I also provide lessons that can be used in the elementary classroom to teach about trees, how trees impact our lives, and why we need to promote protection of our forests for Earth Week and Arbor Day. At the end of Earth Week, I host a tree planting day at one of the schools or at a city park. During this day if students do not have a place to plant their tree or if families wish to plant more trees they can come to our location and help plant our little forest. Through our efforts over 8000 trees have been distributed and planted in the Fond du Lac community. When you drive around the City of Fond du Lac and notice pine trees, spruce trees, cherry trees and crab apples, some of those trees originated through “Trees for Tomorrow.” I tell parents, students and teachers it only takes a few minutes to plant a tree, but it takes a lifetime to watch it grow.”

Troy Gunderson
“First, I grew up in a small town in northwestern Wisconsin called Colfax. I spent a great deal of my youth enjoying many different outdoor activities. My family and I now own approximately 160 acres of woodland in Dunn County. The forest is managed for wildlife and maple syrup. The property includes a 30-year old log cabin and a small timber-framed “sugar shack” for the annual production of maple syrup.

I spent 25 years of my career working for the School District of West Salem. The district has a 90-acre Outdoor Education Center located near Fort McCoy in rural Monroe County. The facility includes a lodge, a ropes course, a canopy classroom, and a regular classroom. The district developed a k-10 curriculum for the facility with each grade making one or two trips per year to the facility. The highlight of the 11-year program is the annual 7th grade campout. As high school principal I was instrumental in creating the ropes course used each for team building with incoming freshmen. As school superintendent I advocated for continued use and funding of maintenance. The district employs an Outdoor Education Center Director who manages the facility, trains the volunteers, leads the instruction, and manages the forest.

The School District of West Salem is noted statewide for this very unique addition to our programming. I am proud of the work done in my twenty-five years working as an administrator for the district.”

Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams
“As an educator trained at one of Wisconsin’s education preparation programs, I demonstrated proficiency in the environmental education standards per Wisconsin Statutes and Administrative Code. As one who was raised in rural Wisconsin, my initial learning about science, biology and earth science was grounded in my experiences as the grand daughter of a sharecropper, helping with planting, nurturing and sowing vegetables. I am highly influenced by outdoor learning and natural resource education as demonstrated by my work as a school leader when ensuring that our students experienced education inside and outside the building, including but not limited to field trips focusing on urban agriculture.”

Deborah Kerr
“I was a kid who grew up playing outside. My Mom would have to call for me to come in to eat supper. I would often leave the house in the morning, only to come back home to use the bathroom, and then go back outside. We played recreational games, went to play in the local parks, and swam in the park district pools. Because of these great childhood experiences, I was always one to want to be outside especially to learn more about the environment.

In grade school, we studied how pollution impacts our environment. I made an art project showing how neglectful people were throwing their trash on our school grounds like wine bottles, soda cans, fast-food trash, etc. I assembled a collage of garbage on a wooden plaque to showcase the problem of pollution on our school grounds. I also wrote an essay to indicate how we could better take care of our environment. My teacher submitted my project to our local Village and I won a $25 savings bond. Also, my Mom was a great gardener. Each spring we planted vegetables and flowers outside our house and I helped her take care of the plants, watering the beds, and weeding. It was a great childhood experience that I still enjoy today as an adult. This was my beginning of me becoming an advocate for environmental education.

One of the hallmarks of my leadership as a Superintendent in the Brown Deer School District was a successful $22 million dollar referendum where we created a master plan for our outdoor campus by incorporating bioswales, apple orchards, children gardens, outside play space, and the plantings of hundred of bushes, trees, and flowers across our 63 acre campus. We incorporated walking trails throughout the campus along with museum-like signage that described each of the areas; prairie habitat, perennials, bioswales, etc to name a few. We contracted with a landscape designer to incorporate all of the different seasons of color to showcase our own botanical gardens throughout the Brown Deer campus. One fall, we had our students plant over 1000 tulip bulbs along the newly renovated space and in the spring their beauty emerged after a long cold winter. Our building project and campus won several awards for this project as we reduced the carbon footprint of large parking lots, mitigated stormwater runoff, and created a place for students to learn outdoors through science, play, art, and physical activity.

The Brown Deer’s School District campus is a sight to see this summer. It’s alive with color in a creative mix of shrubs and perennials. It’s like a virtual science lab that’s fun to explore. The lovely natural setting is accentuated by new signage, delightful birdhouses and unique “little libraries.”The School District’s gardens were designed by renowned, local landscape architect Dennis Buettner, and originally planted by volunteers. More than 20 new “museum quality” signs were installed along the trail to guide visitors through the unique prairie habitat. The signs identify botanical specimens, various species of trees, perennials, birds and a beautiful arrangement of rocks specific to our Wisconsin lands and rivers.

The School District’s outdoor campus is a must-stop during all seasons of the year. During the summer, the trails are aflutter with butterflies, birds and bees, and flowers are in their full glory. Stop by soon to enjoy nature at its most beautiful. Along the trail, pick out a special book from one of the libraries (or drop one off). Then, relax on one of the benches to appreciate how lucky we are to have this get away that everyone in the community can enjoy.”

Steve Krull
“As a teacher, I worked for some time at Trowbridge School of Great Lakes Studies. Though our focus was the great lakes, we did teach environmental education in general. Additionally, I received training from the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the now UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Science. We also took field trips to the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Water Treatment Plant.

As a principal, we built in STEM education into our school day. Because of top down reforms, STEM has become secondary to Math, Reading, and Writing in most schools in the United States. To give equal consideration to STEM, we built daily Science, Technology/Engineering, and Math into our middle school. Including units and lessons on environmental education. For elementary, we partnered with the WestEd Making Sense of Science teacher training programs. Teachers also complete lessons in environmental education and biomimetics.

In my view, environmental education is key to our future. I believe our next industrial revolution/internet idea is the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is the next step for the United States to reclaim our status as world leaders in innovation and economic growth. Environmental education within STEM allows students to learn more than the scientific method to understand how to reason, problem solve, and innovate.”

Jill Underly
“My personal experience with environmental education has been very valuable and I encourage all educators to embrace it. Environmental education has influenced me by:

  • Creating a greater appreciation for the outdoors; and our state park, county parks, and trail systems.
  • Developing the ability to enjoy the outdoors and lifetime sports like biking, hiking, fishing, and snowshoeing.
  • Appreciating the natural world: ornithology, botany, agriculture and agricultural education, and astronomy. I have always been interested in geology and weather, and I live in a part of the world where I have diversity in both subjects. This has provided personal enjoyment for me and allowed me to explore my passions for these subjects in my own hobbies such as food preservation, poultry, gardening, and learning more about farm-raised animals, coffee-roasting, and brewing.
  • Enhancing critical thinking and problem solving

How has outdoor learning and natural resource education influenced me as an educator and administrator?
As a result of outdoor learning and natural resource education, I’ve made conscious decisions about how to incorporate these topics and life lessons into instruction and programs in our schools. It has also made me much more aware of climate change, the impact of humans on our environment – including weather, agriculture, and wild and domesticated animals, extinction, air and water quality.

  • As a social studies teacher I would incorporate place-based learning and living history into lessons and field trips with every opportunity.
  • As an administrator we’ve advocated for and started programs such as the school garden, summer camp program for our students in grades K-5, continued programs like our 5th grade trip to Upham Woods (UW Extension);
  • Engaging students in the real world and real world problems and problem-solving.
  • Supporting science, technology, engineering, and math concepts among my students
  • Promoting teamwork and collaboration.
  • Giving students a greater understanding of and appreciation for the natural world.”

Question 2:

The Every Student Succeeds Act* indicates there is state funding “for activities and programs…supporting local educational agencies in providing programs and activities that…offer well-rounded education experiences…which may include…environmental education” to address student and school needs. In 2015, Wisconsin passed Joint Assembly Resolution 27, Wisconsin’s Children’s Outdoor Heritage Resolution, likewise affirmed “members of the Wisconsin legislature recognize that every Wisconsin child should continue to have the opportunity to: discover Wisconsin’s diverse wilderness;…breathe clean air and drink clean water; splash, play, swim and boat in clean lakes and rivers;…play in the dirt, plant a tree, and grow a garden,” among other things. How do you foresee Wisconsin schools playing a role in ensuring children have these experiences? *(Sec. 4104 State Use of Funds: (b)(3)(A)(i)(VI))

Sheila Briggs
“Wisconsin and its schools need to continue to lead on green schools and environmental education. To continue building upon these traditions and strengths, our schools need support from the state. The division I lead at DPI supports schools with implementation of the environmental literacy and sustainability academic standards as well as programs like Green & Healthy Schools Wisconsin. Most schools do not have the funding or expertise to manage a fully integrated environmental education program – Green & Healthy Schools Wisconsin helps bridge that gap.

Environmental education is an issue that can be done well in a district, and it is a perfect example of an Interdisciplinary practice. Whether that is aquaculture and farm to school in Milwaukee or engaging students on conservation and energy efficiency while upgrading school facilities in Darlington, I am and will continue to be a champion of environmental education as state superintendent.”

Joe Fenrick
“Hands on education where our children are learning in enriching environments is how I see education in the future. As State Superintendent I want every child to have the ability to learn in an outdoor classroom where they are receiving education through real world applications. The more interactive learning can be, the more our children will learn.

School gardens can be a remarkable activity for children of all ages. A school garden provides our children a place where they can perform experiments outdoors by growing different plants. It helps our children learn about nutrition, healthy options, and cuts across curriculums incorporating math, science, reading and health. It encourages teamwork, cooperation, and patience, while building a life skill that can be carried forward.

Planting a tree and spending a lifetime watching it grow, collecting river water and examining it through a microscope, and testing water samples are all examples that a good science curriculum should include. As State Superintendent I will ensure that science education in all classrooms across the state will focus on what makes Wisconsin Wonderful: clean air, clear water, and a plethora of living organisms.”

Troy Gunderson
“After spending twenty-five years working for a school district with a rich and storied commitment to environmental education, it is difficult for me to envision any other model. That said, I fully realize that budget cuts and limited access to natural areas can make these opportunities difficult in many parts of our state.

I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not amazed by the natural beauty of Wisconsin. I toured the state last fall as part of this campaign. I was reminded of the beauty of Lake Michigan while in Manitowoc, of the Mississippi River while in Trempealeau, of the Wisconsin River in Rhinelander and Boscobel, of Lake Superior in Bayfield, of the Horicon Marsh near Waupun, and of the Bluffs near De Soto. Wisconsin is a very cool place. We must do everything we can to expose all of our children to as much of this state as possible. My campaign platform includes a section called Ready to Lead. It calls for the creation of a new vision for public education in Wisconsin. A vision that includes a more unified approach to bring the state together. I can think of no better way than to unite around the beauty of this great state.

As a member of the WIAA Advisory Council I would often recommend the group seek ways to use sports to unify the state. For example, we could encourage the Milwaukee Public Schools to host tournaments with teams from across the state and to participate in tournaments across the state. Every time we approved of a team from Milwaukee traveling across the country to play in metro tournament (something I supported) I would ask if they had yet played a game in Eau Claire, La Crosse, or Wausau? We must be better at working together. I think we can do the same with environmental education by using our state parks. Let’s find a way to ensure all of our students are able to explore this magnificent state with trips to our state parks.”

Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams
“I believe education is about more than guaranteeing students key reading, writing, and mathematical skills: it is about preparing students for a meaningful post-secondary experience and to give back to their community. Education plays a critical role in ensuring students experience, interact with, and protect our natural resources. My Student Bill of Rights guarantees K3 and K4 education to students, building a foundation in critical schools through appropriate activities including play. Much of this education can take place outside. Increased student release time is also vital not only for teachers to have increased time to assess their students, but also to allow students more time for play and interaction—meaning more outdoor time. My Student Bill of Rights also increases emphasis on the value of physical education, building curricula that takes place outdoors. Finally, I will guarantee students the opportunity complete an internship or apprenticeship for school credit, and particularly for students in rural areas, this means building early experience in Wisconsin’s rich agricultural and outdoor tradition.”

Deborah Kerr
“We are fortunate to live in a state where we have vast environmental resources to support our children in their development of environmental literacy. As State Superintendent, I will continue the current work of our Department of Public Instruction providing school districts with the resources and support needed to successfully develop and implement their K-12 environmental learning plans reflecting the “Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability.”

All across our state school districts have been implementing these standards through environmental programming, courses and clubs. Some districts have created environmental schools and learning opportunities by leveraging partnerships with community organizations, nature centers, and higher education. Great examples can be found in this edition of the “Wisconsin School News.” I will continue to support and celebrate partnerships that afford students greater access to experiences and opportunities.

With the Every Student Succeeds Act, environmental literacy opportunities were expanded for many of Wisconsin’s students by affording districts receiving funding for 21st CCLC (out of school time programs with community partners) an opportunity to pursue environmental grants. Together we can leverage opportunities to assist students in their learning loss by ensuring equitable access to high quality environmental learning experiences.

The Department of Public Instruction also developed a comprehensive strategic plan to advance environmental literacy entitled “Wisconsin’s Plan to Advance Education for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability in PK-12 Schools.” As State Superintendent, I will advocate to continue to ensure that all school districts across our state are equitably supported as they work to achieve the goals of their plans, particularly related to ensuring that all teachers and students are afforded opportunities to connect with nature, with a focus on environmental literacy and sustainability.”

Steve Krull
“Our platform focuses on implementing serious school financial reform. We need to shift from a school finance system of reverse-equity, where the most wealthy among us tend to have the most resources, student services, and are not as affected by the teacher shortage. Instead, we need a finance system grounded in equality, equity, and justice. I believe this requires us to move from relying so heavily on property taxes to a system where we establish a basic standard of student care at the state level and fund it. Until we solve the serious structural problems facing our education system in Wisconsin, we will not be able to ensure that every child gets the opportunities they deserve.

More to the question, we want to work with the Federal Department of Education to develop a new ESSA plan that includes shifting funding to STEM and other priorities. In this way, we can help CESA’s and districts implement more STEM types of educational opportunities.”

Jill Underly
“I’ve read the resolution and it’s an ambitious vision for what children should be able to do in our Wisconsin environment and natural habitats. While I whole-heartedly agree with it, it’s something of a Pollyanna type of viewpoint considering that our legislature hasn’t made these priorities in the resolution a priority at all. There are many school children who don’t have access to these things – particularly when much of the burden is placed on parents to provide this opportunity, in a time when many parents must work, and in a time when nearly 14% of Wisconsin school children are living in poverty. In addition, there are many parts of this state, particularly in SW Wisconsin and Central Wisconsin that are experiencing contaminated groundwater and wells. So how does the school provide these opportunities in the resolution?

  • It must be accomplished through field trips and experiences to Wisconsin’s state parks and natural areas, marshes and protected wetlands to participate in activities such as play, hiking, and bird-watching.
  • As a parent and educator I’ve enjoyed joint ventures with UW Extension, the Department of Natural Resources, DPI, and county parks that provide learning opportunities such as counting trout in our streams, 4H activities, nature center programs, and teach a kid to fish days.
  • Many school districts have school gardens and school forests, and those activities should always be included and incorporated in school curriculum.”

Question 3:

The covid-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of outdoor learning as a safe practice and educational tool. How do you believe Wisconsin schools should continue to support outdoor learning practices following the pandemic?

Sheila Briggs
“We have all learned a great deal grappling with the challenges the global pandemic brought upon us. And you’re right, educators learned new ways to emphasize environmental education while teaching in person, and many families incorporated outdoor learning while learning remotely. It also gave classroom educators a teaching tool to understand how we interact with our planet and reinforced many of the values stressed in environmental education. We can and should begin infusing this learning throughout our K-12 curriculum. Many educators have rediscovered the joy of teaching in nature, digging in the dirt, identifying insects and flowers, and the power of learning with the sun on your face. It is my great hope that we will hang onto this powerful learning model as we see the strong impact it has on children’s learning, including their better behavior, engagement and joy for learning, and their increased understanding of how to care for, respect, and appreciate our environment. The health and wellbeing of our children is at stake, and the fate of the planet depends upon us getting this right.”

Joe Fenrick
“Outdoor learning during a pandemic can be a very useful tool while providing amazing experiences. Our outdoor classrooms help provide the will, skill, and thrill in learning, while providing clean air and a safe environment. As State Superintendent I want every school to have an outdoor classroom and space that is where our children can study a variety of environments and ecosystems.”

Troy Gunderson
“As noted in the previous question, I believe we can leverage our state and county parks to offer expanded opportunities for all children in this state. The pandemic has reminded us that it is “ok” to go outside for learning and for fun. Simply Google “Outdoor Kindergarten in Norway” for a look at a year around approach to learning outside. I believe the pandemic and the unrelenting expansion of technology in our lives makes outdoor learning more important every day. As the next State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will push for the inclusion of outdoor activities to both unify our state and recapture the human connection with nature.”

Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams
“Wisconsin is blessed with natural resources, and students from all communities—rural, suburban, and urban—have beautiful natural resources in their communities. In addition to robust classroom education, students need experiences beyond the classroom to understand, appreciate, and develop a passion for a career area. Field trips, outdoor learning, internships/apprenticeships, and natural resource education play a critical role in allowing students to think critically about our natural resources and environment. My Student Bill of Rights guarantees students the liberty to form opinions and make decisions based on truth and fact, not fantasy and fallacies. Students must have good exposure to environmental education so they may feel empowered to play a role in protecting our natural resources and combat the climate crisis.”

Deborah Kerr
Outdoor learning affords us an opportunity to safely reopen schools. In doing so, we can begin to address the deleterious impact of COVID-19 on students and school communities. By reimagining our schools and creating outdoor classrooms, not only can we ensure social distancing and fresh air to mitigate the spread of the virus, but also expand learning experiences and opportunities for our students.

I support Wisconsin’s schools continuing outdoor learning practices after the pandemic. One way to ensure this is to provide our schools with the resources and support they need to continue to do so. The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which was established in response to COVID-19, addressed inequities across our K12 schools by developing a National Outdoor Learning Library as part of their initiative. This free online resource can assist in the transformation of outdoor learning spaces in an effort to “reduce the burden on indoor classrooms while providing fresh air, hands-on-learning opportunities.” There are many great resources about how to incorporate learning in an outdoor setting. One final idea is that I facilitated a book study with my teachers, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. This book written by Robert Louv reminds us of the importance of the essential connection with nature especially with our students.

Steve Krull
“The seasonal weather in Wisconsin requires us to spend most instructional time indoors. With that, outdoor learning can provide experiences and opportunities that differ from indoor learning. We should leverage those benefits when appropriate.”

Jill Underly
“Many lessons can be adapted to be taught outside, and there are many opportunities for place-based or community-based education, where the classroom can be not just outside of school, but in other outdoor classrooms elsewhere in the community. Physical education is a class that comes to mind immediately because it can be accomplished around school grounds, at parks, state parks and county, and in outdoor recreational areas like ski centers, lakes, and swimming pools. Physical and life sciences can be taught outside in an outdoor lab environment
– whether it’s catching and harvesting maple syrup or catching and releasing trout or carp, or looking at the construction of dams.

Many school districts have strong FFA and agricultural education programs, and activities and exploration around agro-tourism, farming, and art can be accomplished outdoors. The point is, outdoor learning opportunities abound, and schools can demonstrate that every day curriculum standards and essential learning outcomes can be achieved outside as well as inside a building, and students get the opportunity to explore their own interests and find their passions within the curriculum parameters.”

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