A dozen community members toured through all three schools in the Port Townsend School District on Jan. 24, quietly watching classrooms in action and speaking to high school students about their educational experience.
Sara Rubenstein, director of communications for the Port Townsend School District, said the three-hour tour would be similar to those provided to school administrators and teachers to solicit their input.
Before the tour, Rubenstein advised visitors to keep an eye out for three elements:
1. Thinking strategies, designed to make students “think about how they think.”
2. Place-based learning programs, such as the maritime discovery courses.
3. Positive behavior intervention systems, “so we teach what we want to see, by example.”
The guided tour of Salish Coast Elementary started with a walk past the fenced areas that will become the campus’ learning gardens, which Rubenstein said will provide produce to supplement school meals.
“This building has high overhead spaces,” said Bonnie Showers, program manager for creative youth development at Centrum.
“I like the industrial feel of it,” said Agnes Balassa, who works as a consultant.
While fifth-grade teacher Aaron Hall talked with his class about the acidification of the oceans, a group of fourth-graders marched down the hall with oversized field journals hanging around their necks, ready to record data at Fort Worden.
Rubenstein pointed to classrooms that had been built bigger to allow team teaching between two instructors, as well as to the math intervention space, which already has provided extra support to 129 students since the start of the school year.
Visitors observed Wanda Leclerc allowing art students flexibility in creation, while other students were handed Eagle tickets for good behavior.
Rubenstein touted the Eagle reading room, which provides targeted reading intervention, as she pointed out class sizes for grades K-2 have been reduced to 18 students per room, thanks to increased state funds.
“Our teachers can choose a lot of their furniture, and choose how they want to be called by students,” Rubenstein added as the visiting groups passed by walls plastered with posters explaining the concept of “schema,” which is a representation of a plan or theory in the form of an outline or model.
One upgrade from Grant Street Elementary, which Rubenstein acknowledged didn’t have “a proper cafeteria,” is the high-ceilinged area at Salish Coast, where half of the district’s 600 school lunches are served daily. Blue Heron Middle School serves 175 on site, and Port Townsend High School serves the remaining 125.
“Salish Coast is the central kitchen for the school district,” Rubenstein said.
Port Townsend School Board member Laura Tucker pointed out the acoustic canvas areas of the cafeteria commons that mute crowd noise enough to allow the space to be used as a public meeting space, along with the climbing rock wall-equipped gymnasium.
“And you’ll notice both multipurpose areas are located at the front of the building,” Tucker said.
Salish Coast Principal Lisa Condran also pointed out the ceiling-mounted lights in the cafeteria, salvaged from the old Lincoln School building, and assured the tour group that Finnriver Farm is currently tending to the school’s transplanted crop of plants until they can be replanted back on campus.
The tour group’s visit to Blue Heron Middle School was confronted with the integration of technology into classroom lessons the moment they walked in the gym and saw the physical education teacher using online videos to get his students up to speed on the fundamentals of pickleball.
Rubenstein said the school’s STEM program has been augmented by integrating arts into its science, technology, engineering and math courses, making it STEAM. Port Townsend Schools Superintendent John Polm credited the relocation of the fourth and fifth grades to Salish Coast with giving Blue Heron more prospective lab spaces.
Jef Waibel guided his students in wiring up robotic equipment to allow his students to play piano music on keys made out of slabs of clay. He also led them through classroom discussions during which they offered constructive feedback to each other.
Fellow teacher Don Oliveira presented history lessons to his students by challenging them to write up travel brochures for time travelers looking to visit the most important moments of the Roman Empire.
“OK, so you’ve got the founding of Rome and the Punic Wars,” Oliveira pointed to one student, before turning to another, “And you’ve got, what, the Roman emperors? The good, the bad and the crazy?”
Blue Heron also hosts the OCEAN K-12 alternative learning program, which Rubenstein described as having 2 1/2 teachers on staff, supplemented by the participation of parents, making for what she called a “hybrid homeschool program.”
As soon as the tour members visited the Port Townsend High School campus, they stepped into the cafeteria line so they could enjoy school lunches while chatting with high school students in the library.
When PTHS sophomore Brooke Hageman moved to town from Aberdeen in Grays Harbor County, the first thing she noticed was the abundance of maritime educational opportunities, complete with field trips. But she lamented the relative dearth of social activities for young people her age, beyond boating and the skate park.
At the same time, Hageman believes the high school doesn’t get enough positive attention for programs such as its mock trial and knowledge bowl teams, and she expressed enthusiasm for the maritime career and technical education classes she’s taken.
“By making a stand-up paddleboard, I learned all sorts of shop skills,” said Hageman, who also praised the school for partnering with the West Sound Technical Skills Center of Bremerton to offer even more CTE opportunities.
Hageman’s time job-shadowing nurse practitioners impressed her with what a “rewarding” career it could be, especially since it allows one to meet “all different types of people.” But she remains undecided as far as her post-graduate future.
“I don’t know exactly what would be the best fit for me yet,” Hageman said. “I do feel pressured to figure it out, because people will ask me, and when I say I don’t know, they’ll say, ‘That’s OK, you still have time,’ but then, they keep asking me. I’m 15 years old. I’m just trying to pass all my classes. Whether I’ll go into the medical field or be teacher, I just don’t know.”
Senior Julianne Short, president of the Associated Student Body, has shadowed a number of different career professionals, including her mom, who owns a business.
“I even wound up managing part of her business for a while, in one city in Alaska,” Short said. “I learned lot about technology, and I spent my time scheduling jobs, calling customers and collecting payments. I’ve even done marketing for my mom’s ads.”
Short also shares Hageman’s enthusiasm for mock trial.
“For a while, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer,” Short said. “It’s really stressful, though.”
Short rated her high school’s academic opportunities as relatively few but worthwhile.
“We don’t have that many (advanced placement) classes, but all the ones we do have are really high-quality,” Short said. “Knowledge bowl is probably the biggest club at our school, and we frequently go to state.”
When asked what they might do to improve the school with $10,000, Short noted the boost in school spirit that followed the placement of the school’s awards in the gym, while Hageman cited concerns such as replacing broken chairs, updating textbooks and stocking up on more calculators and microscopes.
When Polm and Rubenstein asked the tour group to share its observations, Port Townsend Cycle School cofounder Kees Kolff admitted, “I didn’t learn words like ‘schema’ until I was in college.”
Balassa was struck by the degree to which learning was group-oriented with the students she saw.
“For kids that age to offer and receive well-thought-out feedback was really impressive,” Balassa said. “They’d clearly had practice at it and were very gracious.”
When Balassa and Kolff agreed the students demonstrated their ability to analyze and “think for themselves,” Polm said it’s reflective of a shift in education, “from the teacher as the keeper of knowledge, to them being the mediator of meaning.”
“Instead of teachers being sages on the stage, they’re the guides on the side,” Port Townsend Schools Assistant Superintendent Sandy Gessner said.
Earll Murman, a semi-retired aerospace teacher, referenced the movie “On the Basis of Sex” to point out how the Port Townsend students’ educational experience differs from the Harvard Law years of future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Here, the teachers are more like coaches,” Murman said. “And the students are taught to trust and respect their peers.”
“The one young lady we spoke to told us how much she loves that this is an inclusive environment,” Showers added.
The tour group’s final stops of the day included a relationship skills class at the high school.