meet joey: revolutionizing education in milwaukee (escuela verde series 01)

Three years ago, I made a list of my personal heroes. I was on a quest to pave a path that melded my skills with my passions and my possibilities, and these people were true inspiration.

Joey, her mentor, and a group of teachers came together to start Escuela Verde as a team, under the umbrella created by the trailblazing TransCenter for Youth.

Joey, her mentor, and a group of teachers came together to start Escuela Verde as a team, under the umbrella created by the trailblazing TransCenter for Youth.

Then I made a list of my core values and drew little maps of potential professional paths I could create for myself, including things like starting a farm, going to grad school, moving to places I’ve never even visited, and—this is great!—working at Victory Garden Initiative! I just found the little notebook I wrote all my dreams and plans in, and I don’t really remember writing that, but it came true. I also researched the best educational programs and companies to work for, compared my strengths and weaknesses, and considered the characteristics and careers of those I looked up to most.

Now fast forward to today, and I really do feel like I’m living the values I listed while I take on the best parts of those paths I drew. (However, I laughed out loud when I found my weakness list and realized most of them hadn’t changed. Note to self: Work. On. Those!)

I also happen to work for one of the women on my hero list—and that dang list just won’t stop growing. Who would be on yours?

Settle in for a good one; Joey’s my newest addition.

Joey Zocher is a founding adviser at Escuela Verde, an environmental justice-focused charter school on the south side of Milwaukee. At EV, there aren’t teachers, but advisers. From teaching biology in a windowless basement for 10 years to pursuing her masters then Ph.D.—all while working—this woman is an unwavering powerhouse on a quest for equitable treatment of our earth and the students on it. Escuela Verde is a bilingual, year-round, 7th-12th grade school with a project-based approach to education. (If you’re into this approach as much as I am, check out this film! You will love it.)

“We need to start teaching our teachers like professionals”, Joey says. “Why they’re quitting is because they’re seeing these issues they can’t do anything about.”

“We need to start treating our teachers like professionals,” Joey says. “Why they’re quitting is because they’re seeing these issues they can’t do anything about.”

People with Panache: So you started college majoring in urban forestry and quickly changed to emphases on biology, psychology, women’s studies and secondary education. Whew! What do you think propelled you to where you are today?

Joey Zocher: I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee and went to school in Stevens Point, Wis. I got really depressed in high school, as most do—coming of age is really hard. I realized I was gay at a really young age; I like to refer to those years as Pre-Ellen Age. It was challenging because I realized I was this straight-A student doing everything right, but no matter what, I was the black sheep of the family.

College was a place where I could become who I was and choose my friend groups. It also helped me understand being part of a marginalized population.

And it taught me that there’s enough people in the world, you just have to find your people. It might feel like everyone’s against you—maybe everyone is against you in that particular setting. You just have to find that right setting and then you can be honest and authentic about who you are and still be really liked.

PWP: Exactly. So what brought you to the realization you could really make an impact in the city?

JZ: As I’ve reflected on education and what some of our kids might go through, I’ve thought about when people look at you like they’re scared of you for no reason—it’s hard not to get puffy and try to respond. It took me till a few years ago to reflect on my own educational pathway; having to defend something that seems natural seems real weird. Our kids go through that all the time.

Joey got her Ph.D in Urban Education: Curriculum and Instruction while she was teaching full-time. “I didn’t want to be in an ivory tower researching things I wasn’t a part of,” she says.

Joey got her Ph.D. in Urban Education: Curriculum and Instruction while she was teaching full-time. “I didn’t want to be in an ivory tower researching things I wasn’t a part of,” she says.

One of the things I’m really passionate about is the asset of our urban populations. Any curriculum I found took the approach of tweaking what we already have and making it relevant to urban kids. Instead…

PWP: …the environmental education actually needs to be specifically tailored to urban surroundings!

JZ: Yes! After I taught biology and got my Master’s in Environmental Education, I was the program director of the Washington Park Urban Ecology Center. What really struck a chord and what I was trying to articulate is the real responsibility of being white labor in a predominantly non-white neighborhood—that everything we do is meaningful, from the questions we ask to the programs we develop—everything.

I feel like academia and driving forces of education are all geared by white-dominant culture, and there’s this weird sense about how can we “save” inner cities. I realized I wasn’t going to get where I needed to go, and I didn’t have the language to talk about it.

PWP: In this process of transition and discovery, did you have a mentor?

JZ: I went back to school and talked to Bobbi, who became one of the co-founders of Escuela Verde. She is my mentor, and she was principal of Loyola High School at the time. I needed something else in my life and thought, “She’s probably who knows most about what I’m talking about.” I was sitting in an office all day, writing about how people need to go outside. I didn’t get to hang out with kids much. I’m not a “boss”—that’s not my style.

I went back to teaching for a year and a half and started my Master’s and ultimately my Ph.D. in Urban Education: Curriculum and Instruction. I knew I wanted to be involved in education, urban sustainability and justice.  

When I was pursuing my Ph.D., my dissertation topic was about the process of going through the senior thesis at Escuela Verde and how that impacted students’ environmental literacy.

First, I had to define what environmental literacy meant to me and this specific group of folks. It wasn’t just how the water cycle works, but understanding that what we’re doing in our culture is destroying the earth—recognizing we’re oppressors and that the earth is a marginalized population. To create change, we must create people who are willing to stand up for what is just, speak even though their voice shakes, feel empowered to do something.

PWP: I am so glad schools like yours exist, that people like you exist. By saving the earth, we will save ourselves.

I asked Joey how they maintain this energizing culture: "Those of us who enjoy learning like to go places and be social and bounce ideas off people. What does that look like? Where would you go? Say you didn’t have to go to school. You talk at coffee shops, libraries, places set up to be comfortable." Escuela Verde is set up to be inspiring, and here's one example of a student project.

I asked Joey how they maintain this energizing culture: “Those of us who enjoy learning like to go places and be social and bounce ideas off people. What does that look like? Where would you go? Say you didn’t have to go to school. You talk at coffee shops, libraries, places set up to be comfortable.” Escuela Verde is set up to be inspiring, and here’s one example of a student project.

JZ: When we imagine our kids graduating, we don’t want them to know what they need to know to do well on a test. We want them to be able to figure stuff out and know what they want from their lives and look with a critical eye. We don’t want them to want to be a scientist when they grow up; we want them to feel and know that they’re a scientist right now. They’re an activist right now. They don’t have to wait. Life is happening.

PWP: While Escuela Verde doesn’t adhere to a traditional model, I know a lot of people are often curious about the testing everyone is subjected to, no matter their school.

JZ: Basically, as a public school, we are required to do all the same testing as everyone else. We’re supposed to have 100% of students take the ACT. Out of our 100 students, more than a quarter are Special Education, and we have many English Language Learners who aren’t planning on going to college, who already have a plan. To force them to sit 4 hours through a test where they’ll feel incompetent—that seems harmful. If the parents and students feel justified to not take the test, we’re going to support that decision.

We aren’t saying that tests are not important, just that there is way more to learning than one test. One score does not reflect how valuable a person is to our community. We try to focus on the whole person, and yes testing is a part of it, but just one small part.

PWP: That seems both realistic and kind. Joey, what most fulfills you?

JZ: Being a part of a community of really passionate rabble-rousers and knowing that it’s not just here; it’s around the world. People are fighting the good fight. People haven’t given up.

I actually really like hanging out with these kids. And I also really like kind of crossing the lines. I like mixing art with science and philosophy, indoor and outdoor, things that don’t typically blend and putting them together.

Follow Escuela Verde on Facebook here, and feel free to ask questions and share ideas in the comments. We’ll get them to Joey!

 “This process? This is it,” Joey says. “We want you to be a lifelong learner. That’s a teacher catchphrase, but your objective should be to continue to learn. You might hear, ‘I got my bio credit, I’m done with bio.’ Or ‘I’m done with social studies.’ Well not if you’re ever planning on living around people! It should never be a goal to be done with learning.”


“This process? This is it,” Joey says. “We want you to be a lifelong learner. That’s a teacher catchphrase, but your objective should be to continue to learn. You might hear, ‘I got my bio credit, I’m done with bio.’ Or ‘I’m done with social studies.’ Well not if you’re ever planning on living around people! It should never be a goal to be done with learning.”

[Photos by Alysse.]

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