By Lara Dunning
In 1977, Nancy and David Leedy and Kelly Webster dreamt of a school that valued every child and inspired creativity and learning through fun. What motivated them? Watching their own very active and very curious children and realizing they’d succeed best in a small group setting with lots of hands-on activities. At the time, the public school system had large classes and lots of sitting and learning through worksheets. It wasn’t a system they believed their children would excel in, and although many public schools were interested in considering new educational models, it wasn’t going to happen soon enough. So, with meager means, they started Island School in a garage in Rolling Bay. Webster’s son was one of the enrolled kindergartners.
Kids had plenty of play and learning with lots of hands-on activities, such as building dams and redirecting water in the giant spring-fed mud puddle in the backyard, building and rebuilding structures with octopus boxes at recess, and crafting with paper, markers, and lots and lots of tape. Those first years confirmed what the Leedys and Webster had already observed—that children have a natural curiosity. The key was to keep encouraging that inquisitiveness in hopes that a love of lifelong learning would become part of their everyday lives. Today, Island School is a private primary school on Bainbridge, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Their mission to value every child, nourish their curiosity, inspire lifelong learning, and foster respect for the self and others hasn’t strayed from its founding.
“The joy in learning is always a priority,” said head of school Trish King, “and everything we do is always through the lens that asks, ‘Is this best for the kids?’ When you have the freedom to do that, there is no limit to what the school and its students can do.” In 1977, the school started with 11 kindergarten and first grade students and over the years has expanded up to fifth grade. Forty years later, its educational model is still going strong. This year, it has 80 enrolled students with room for a few more. Music, art, dance, Spanish and physical education are core parts of its curriculum, as is inclusion, which is taught in concrete ways, such as not speaking poorly of others and saying yes when someone asks to join your game.
Throughout the year the school has familiar activities like plays and concerts. Others, though, may sound a little more unusual, like overnight trips to the Olympic Peninsula, the Grand Coulee Dam, and destinations along the Lewis and Clark trail. Monday Morning Sing is a celebration of the start of the week with songs in the library, where parents and grandparents are welcome to join. Then there is Leak Lake, a manmade retention pond where children can splash in the puddles during recess. During the annual fourweek Cultural Study, students dig deeper into understanding a chosen region or country, such as the recent study of Ghana. It was made richer by a visit from Ghanian high school exchange student attending West Sound Academy who shared stories and photos contrasting life in the city with village life.
“When they leave the school, kids really know themselves, how they learn and how to be an advocate for themselves,” said Joan Henderson, advancement director. “They realize teachers are there to help them and not be an adversary.” Because of its 9-to-1 student-toteacher ratio, teachers can fully engage with students, helping them to pursue extracurricular interests. Bainbridge is known for its excellent public schools, but for families considering different models, the Island School offers a positive alternative. Some parents choose the school to help build their child’s emotional and social learning as well as their academics. Others like the school’s culture of kindness and caring, or its teaching through creativity and curiosity. Inevitably, the school becomes a supportive community for them and their child.
Every fall, Island School celebrates the beginning of the year with a fall carnival, with proceeds going to the school’s general fund and financial aid. Games are geared toward elementary children and include activities like catching fish at the fishing booth, a cupcake walk, playing putt-putt and tossing beanbags. This year Bainbridge Island Barbeque will be selling its dishes, and Buckshot String Band and the Island School fifth grade band will perform. The parent-run event takes place on October 7 from noon to 4 p.m. “It’s a lovely family day with community,” said King.