Principal Angela Sheffey Bogan got a new school this year. Last fall, the longtime principal of Dearborn Park International Elementary in Seattle took the lead at Sartori Elementary, a new STEM magnet school in downtown Renton. It came with new teachers, most from outside the Renton School District, and new students, representing 14 different schools. Even the building was new, completed just days prior to the start of school.
One thing, however, would not be new for Angela—IslandWood. After ten years of accompanying her Dearborn students to the School Overnight Program (SOP), IslandWood had become something of an old and trusted friend. Angela needed IslandWood now more than ever. She needed IslandWood to not only provide the environmental education and opportunities for students’ personal growth she had come to expect, but to bring these newfound colleagues and classmates together as a community. It worked. “We are reaping the benefits now,” she says.
Sartori came to IslandWood just six weeks into the school year. How Angela could pull off such an organizational and persuasive feat in so short a time is a testament not only to her charisma and conviction, but to her commitment to talking things through and being present. As a matter of practice, Angela has always participated in SOP with her students, which she has found sets parents at ease. When Randy Komatsu, IslandWood’s School Partnerships Program Coordinator, holds an information night for families at the school, Angela is there. This way when parents pepper him with questions and eye her with uncertainty, she can back him up. “Yes, this is what it really is like,” she affirms. She keeps the conversation going long after he leaves, which was especially important in convincing Sartori’s teachers who were unfamiliar with IslandWood. There were myths to dispel (they would not be sleeping in tents, but in beautifully appointed lodges) and responsibilities to clarify (teachers are on call even after turning in for the night).
It takes much more than ferrying teachers, parents, and students to Bainbridge Island to spend four days and three nights together in the woods to build community. Although such seclusion can foster relationships, far more important is the program’s practice and philosophy of encouraging students to cross social and cultural boundaries.
At Sartori, a small number of the special-education students learn in self-contained classrooms. At IslandWood, all students learn together. This model of inclusion is possible because, as Angela observed, IslandWood instructors make meeting all students’ needs a priority and communicate regularly with one another and with teachers. She recalls hearing an instructor voice concern about a student who was not interacting with peers appropriately and then express a desire to create opportunities for this child to do so. At IslandWood, inclusion is more than attendance, but meaningful participation.
Students from different schools sit together in the Dining Hall for family-style meals. Parents have reported to Angela that they appreciate the opportunity for their children to get outside their comfort zone and interact with those who may not look like them or share their beliefs. Angela adds that in this setting her students act as “ambassadors” for their school, which strengthens their group identity. She too subscribes to the importance of crossing boundaries. When making lodge assignments, she intentionally groups students who would not ordinarily be together at school.
Next year getting her school to IslandWood should be a little easier for Principal Bogan. There are systems in place to manage logistics, but more important, she is not the only person talking about IslandWood. All those new teachers? Not only do they know one another now, they know IslandWood. In fact, they’re already planning units that align with the SOP curriculum. At IslandWood, Sartori’s science coach Dr. Carolyn Colley watched the students investigate the sediment beds down at Blakely Harbor. Back in Renton, she connected that lesson to one of her own, in which students studied the soil beneath their school and learned about the process of preparing it for construction. The school is still new, but its foundation has strengthened in just these few months of shared experience, including those four days and three nights at IslandWood.