School’s In // Exploring Educational Options on Bainbridge

By Susan Brandzel

The leaves are changing color, the air has cooled, and yellow school buses are once again chugging up and down our island roads. It’s that notoriously sentimental, exciting and slightly nerve wracking time when kids return to school. But unlike in most small communities, the opportunities for learning on Bainbridge Island are incredibly varied and plentiful. In fact, there are so many we cannot cover them all here. In addition to award-winning mainstream public schools, Bainbridge Island is host to multiple programs that suit a wide range of learning styles and educational values. The myriad options allow our students to grow and thrive.

Digging In

Identical twins Karen Raines Keller and Katherine Raines always knew they would eventually live together as adults. Having spent their earliest childhood years living in an orphanage, they share an indescribably tight bond. Both with K-8 teaching credentials and master’s degrees in education (Keller is a kindergarten teacher at Blakely), they recently launched a new preschool called muckabout academy (intentionally in lowercase as a nod to educator bell hooks).

Their teaching philosophies are founded in humanist, academic and developmental concepts. Kids won’t have their jackets zipped at muckabout, they will learn to persevere to zip them by themselves. If they knock down another kid’s castle, teachers won’t demand an immediate apology, but they will encourage that child to offer to help rebuild the castle together with the offended party, or move them to another play area. Their multiage program includes kids ages 3 to 5 for a fourhour preschool adventure. The typical preschool day is 3½ hours. But Keller and Raines stretched that time to give parents a little more time to get things done. They also plan to host parenting “salons,” evening events that include discussions about child rearing and education.

“We value kids having intentional connections with their teachers,” said Raines. “We also want this to be a place where we don’t hurry your child. We allow for some really open-ended exploration.” Keller and Raines have purposefully chosen books, games and other activities that are rooted in social justice and gender equity, while also making sure that their curriculum prepares kids for kindergarten.

Strong Minds

Three years ago, Mary Lawson and Sally Kidder Davis brought the Arrowsmith Program to Kitsap County. Kathleen Mitchell is now in charge of the program for Bainbridge Island. This neuroeducation program is designed to help students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, train their brain to integrate information to improve learning. Designed by Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who studied neuroplasticity, the program provides visual, auditory and written exercises that create new neural pathways. It is a “brain strengthening” process. “The exercises help across several academic areas,” Mitchell said.

Arrowsmith is a supplementary education program for students starting as young as second grade. Upon entry, they are given a series of tests to identify areas that need strengthening. Their tests results are sent to Arrowsmith headquarters in Canada, where a customized learning plan is developed and returned to the students’ instructors. Students are typically enrolled in the program for two to three years, though some stay longer. Last year, there were 12 Bainbridge enrollees in the second through eighth grade program, and additional students at the high school level.

Learning by Doing

The Madrona School, established in 1999, is housed in the heart of Winslow. Founded on the principles of Waldorf education—creativity, critical reasoning, empathy and moral responsibility—Madrona welcomes students from the preschool level through the eighth grade, engaging them in social development, practical life skills such as cooking, knitting and carpentry, as well as more traditional academic areas including two foreign language offerings. The school also makes sure kids spend significant time outdoors with activities like reading stories around a campfire or playing games at Waterfront Park.

Children can start at Madrona in a parent involved program as early as 12 months if they are walking. Their kindergarten program spans three years and is mixed age, 3 to 5. This blending creates natural mentorship and role model opportunities. Teachers progress with a given “class” for multiple years, fostering robust connections between students and teachers and creating a comfortable, welcoming environment. Enrollment in Madrona is rising. Head of School Missi Goss attributes this growth in part to some transplanted Seattle families seeking refuge from “urban overwhelm.” When asked what the ultimate goal of a Madrona education is, Goss replied: “Helping children grow into fluent, healthy social beings.”

Something for Everyone

Only about a half mile from the Madrona school, and sharing certain values and philosophies, is the Commodore building, home base for three popular public education options: the Odyssey Multiage Program, the Mosaic Home Education Partnership and Eagle Harbor High School. Headed by principal David Shockley, these three programs are distinct from one another, but they share some common space, teachers and administrators.

Mosaic is one of the oldest home school support programs in the country. Through it, educators advise parents (who are their children’s primary instructor) by providing curriculum content and teaching suggestions. Mosaic also hosts classes two days per week for home schooled students, giving them both a periodic group learning experience and an opportunity to socialize with their peers. It also allows the parent instructors a break to recharge and plan, since they are “on” all the time as both parents and teachers. During the 2014-2015 school year, there were approximately 40 families and 55 students taking part in Mosaic.

Joelle Cowan, mother of Soleil (12) and Argus (6), just finished a two year term as head of Mosaic’s parent teacher organization. She has been home schooling her kids for six years. Asked why she chose to home school, she said, “I was always inclined toward different educational styles. And when it came time for first grade, the best choice for our family was to home-school. It seemed like it would be interesting and fun.” Cowan, her husband, Adrian, and the two kids live in Winslow Cohousing, so they don’t have abundant private space for a classroom. Nonetheless, they have managed to convert half of Argus’s bedroom into a learning space with desks and a chalkboard. They also have access to cohousing common space when needed.

The second program hosted in the Commodore building is the Odyssey Multiage Program for first- through eighth graders. Odyssey is a public option, but spaces are limited in order to provide an intimate environment for the program’s students. An annual lottery is held for admission to Odyssey, and there is always a waiting list for these highly coveted spaces. Odyssey emerged from what was considered “the family classroom” schooling where siblings could be under one roof and in which parents had significant involvement. Although that moniker is no longer official, one of Odyssey’s claims to fame is the extensive mandatory time and energy that parents spend volunteering and participating in their children’s education.

Students are grouped in classrooms of two grade levels (e.g., first and second grades together), but Odyssey is also extremely supportive of self-paced learning. For example, a student may be working at grade level in one subject, but well above grade level in another. Odyssey classrooms allow for this type of variance. Eagle Harbor High School (EHHS) is the third component of the educational triad in the Commodore building. Stemming from two now-defunct alternative high school programs, EHHS is a different but equivalent high school option that prides itself on offering students “a voice and a choice,” according to Principal Shockley. It is as academically rigorous as Bainbridge High School. The 50-student class of 2015 included two National Merit scholars.

One significant appeal of EHHS is its small size. The average number of kids per grade is about 35. Students are on a first name basis with their teachers. Also a public school on Bainbridge with a waiting list, EHHS allows students to pursue individual interests, whether they are part of the required, foundational curriculum, such as math, English or science, or subjects less typically academic, like acting or electronics. Cooper Becker, who graduated in the class of 2015, discovered a great interest in metal fabrication at age 13. These days, he tools around the island in a car he worked on himself. “EHHS gives you the opportunity to grow your personal passions and create something a little bigger than just going to school and learning what everyone else is,” Becker said.

EHHS students are supported in finding opportunities that truly interest them. When a group of students recently expressed an interest in learning Latin and Russian, the school was able to help make learning these languages a reality. EHHS student are also welcome to take classes and engage in all activities offered at Bainbridge High School. While the two schools share a graduation ceremony every year, EHHS hosts its own senior celebration as well. This year, graduating senior Liam Cunningham serenaded his fellow EHHS graduates playing the bagpipes. The great American educational reformer John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” If that’s the case, then life on Bainbridge is very good indeed.