When asked what makes the preschool-through-sixth-grade Swan School special in her eyes, Bonnie White, the assistant head of the school, offered what might seem like a counterintuitive answer.
“Families in this community have so many choices on how to educate their children,” said White, who was one of the Swan School's founders back in 1983. “It didn't used to be this way. But the Swan School is one more option for families with children.”
White and Russ Yates, the head of the school who also serves as one of its teachers, explained that the Swan School's option includes multiage education, hands-on experimentation and outdoor lessons, and what they referred to as a “balanced calendar” of instruction and vacation times.
“We started the balanced calendar about six years ago,” said White, as she greeted families over cookout meals during the Swan School's open house on the afternoon of Sept. 6. “It gives our students eight weeks on, followed by two weeks off, throughout the year.”
Indeed, although the Swan School's open house was Sept. 6, its start of school date for the 2018-19 school year was Aug. 20, and its classes will run until Oct. 15, at which point the students will get two weeks off.
“By eight weeks in, they're ready for a break,” White said. “And it aids their retention of the lessons they're learned, rather than giving them a 10-week vacation during which they can forget the material. It also allows them to experience all four seasons in school.”
Yates noted the importance of such a diversity of experience in a school that leans as heavily as the Swan School does on experiential learning.
Yates also touted the value of having multiple ages and grades of students in the same classrooms, by comparing the Swan School's approach to what he saw in his students back when he worked at more traditional schools.
“Every child has their own pace for learning,” Yates said. “With a school as small as ours, teachers can find out where each student is at, in each subject, and teach just a little bit above that level. And in a multiage classroom, kids are naturally supportive of one another. It's regarded as okay if everyone is in a different spot in their learning.”
By contrast, what Yates observed in classrooms made up of the same grade levels was that students became more competitive with each other, regardless of his attempts to encourage them to do otherwise.
“It's like the bell curve,” Yates said. “It pulls the stronger students down toward the middle, and frustrates the students who can't reach that level. Whereas, when you don't segregate by age, the younger kids are inspired to come up to the level of their older peers, who push themselves harder in turn, to be better role models.”
This dynamic of peer-to-peer mentorship plays out in the hands-on and field-based learning exercises as well, with older kids helping younger ones build with blocks, or even pick up trash around the school and throughout the community.
The Swan School has been at its current location at 2345 Kuhn St. in Port Townsend since 1985, but Yates noted the building dates back to 1958. With 51 students and 14 staff members, including administrators and teachers, the Swan School has learned to make efficient use of its space.
Perhaps more importantly, its style of instruction has earned supporters among its former students, such as now-13-year-old Ephraim Lewis.
“I was home-schooled before I came here, so this was a really good transition,” Lewis said. “I was used to spending a lot of time with my parents, but the Swan School gave me the same amount of one-on-one time with my teachers.”