Last year, the Port Townsend School District formally adopted the Maritime Discovery Schools Initiative, a plan to transform K-12 education by unifying learning around a central maritime theme, connecting education to the community.
Teachers, students and community partners spoke about how the plan has begun taking shape at a Feb. 18 town meeting at Port Townsend High School, which was attended by about 26 people.
The initiative is based in the idea that “students are going to learn through doing authentic work,” said Sarah Rubenstein, Maritime Discovery Schools Initiative project director. “They value their learning because they understand how it has real-world application.”
By grounding education in real-world experiences, the project aims to help create a “different kind of student,” more prepared for the workforce or college; creative problem-solvers who can work as part of a team.
Rubenstein said that half of the project’s implementation cost of $750,000 has already been raised, just one year into the five-year fundraising effort. Donations have come from local individuals and sources other than traditional school funding from the state.
“Teachers need time and space to create a new curriculum” that weaves in place-based learning opportunities, Rubenstein said. An instructional coach comes in once a month to help curriculum development, she noted.
Curriculum is intended to have continuity through the grades. Second- and third-grade curriculum may link to beach walks and swimming lessons; fifth-graders may visit salmon streams and help count returning fish; sixth-graders may do creek restoration; seventh-graders row and sail longboats; high school students can take maritime trades classes or build underwater robots.
Last summer, middle school science teachers Jen Manning and Roger Mills developed curriculum with community partner Finnriver Farm & Cidery, with the aim of helping to eradicate reed canary grass, a weed threatening Chimacum Creek. Three student trips to the creek at Finnriver Farm are planned.
“Kids are working on a solution,” Mills said. “The goal is to eradicate the weed.”
On the first trip, students become familiar with the creek and the farm, and also visit the mouth of the creek. On the next trip, they’re put to work planting trees on the creek banks; shade may help eradicate the weed. On the third trip, they finish up the planting and do more “stewardship” of the creek.
“A number of lessons in class – designing their experiment, putting together tree orders,” correlate with the field trips, Mills said.
“We’re hoping the next generation of seventh-graders can collect data on how well the trees are helping.”
This unit of study includes classroom visits by Carrie Clendaniel of the Jefferson Land Trust (JLT) and Reed Aubin of the North Olympic Salmon Coalition (NOSC).
On the first trip to Finnriver, local chef Arran Stark roasted salmon for the students, which helped grab their interest. Mills said the project aids learning because students like “to make an impact on their own community, to do something real.”
Leslie Shively, eighth-grade social studies teacher, explained the S2O Challenge project on Feb. 18. “S2O” stands for Salish Sea to Olympia. The project has many facets: restoration work at Discovery Bay and Kilisut Harbor; working with JLT, NOSC and the U.S. Geological Survey; and taking samples to monitor the progress of habitat restoration. “They’ll also do some seining” to check up on the fish, said Shively, and are to visit Olympia to tour the Capitol building and learn how to advocate for causes they support. For example, students wanted to know about a tourism bill and what the common-core assessments will look like; they’re also advocating for the passage of bills that would help bring local food to school cafeterias.
Eighth-graders get to conduct water-quality testing, sail on the schooner Adventuress, take on a ropes course at Camp Seymour, study sea life and astronomy at Salt Creek, and visit the Sol Duc Resort.
“I feel very proud to say that we’re forming all these relationships with those partners in our community,” Manning said.
Other community partner organizations are the Port Townsend Marine Science Center – some students are helping survey the science center pier, which needs replacing – and Sound Experience, the nonprofit that owns the schooner Adventuress.
Kelley Watson, maritime studies teacher at PTHS, said her class works in the school's wood shop most of the time, going out into the community about one-fourth of the time. On Wednesdays, they walk to Point Hudson to work with crew of the Adventuress, moored there for this winter, or to work with the longboats at the Northwest Maritime Center.
Student Ellis Anderson reported that he plans to be a welder, and said the marine trades class is helping him feel more at ease in the boatyard. He and fellow student Ally Bradley recently helped change the oil in the Adventuress’ engine. “It’s better than just reading out of a textbook,” he said.
Watson said the maritime studies program takes advantage of a “ridiculous amount of talent in our community.” Often, from six to eight volunteers are helping her teach, “so our staff-to-student ratio really plummets.”
Bradley said, “My favorite part is the hands-on work, because I want to be an aerospace engineer ... we’ve realigned a propeller shaft, raised an engine and replaced the oil in the Adventuress’ engine.”
They’ve also learned to varnish, splice and do joinery. “Also, to work as a team and build self-confidence,” Bradley said.
Megan Addison, Sound Experience education director, said students have visited the ship for 12 weeks this winter, and it’s been “a huge success.” First- and second-graders who are studying resources are asking, “What do you need in a town to survive?” with the Adventuress serving as “a microcosm of a town,” because, like a town, its passengers and crew need to have all the basics.
Third-graders learned about cultural history by visiting the vessel, Addison said, and fifth-graders learned about the connections of people to land and water.
“The teachers have a smile on their faces,” Rubenstein said, because of “how exciting the experience was for their students.”