Celebrating our 20th Anniversary, Featuring Pat O’Rourke
Pat O’Rourke served as IslandWood’s Director of Education from 2002 to 2008, creating an indelible impact that continues to ripple out into the region many years later. In honoring her significance in our history, we asked if she’d reflect on her time at IslandWood, which she so beautifully shares in her own words below.
“I came to IslandWood in June 2002 when it was still called Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center, 3 months before the grand opening. After a long career in teacher education at the university level and in educational administration as an elementary school principal and director of teacher certification programs, I was excited to have a new challenge. The design of the programs with the total integration of learning for both the children and the graduate students is a powerful model for effective education and is what drew me to IslandWood.
At the time I had no idea how powerful this work would be for me. Each day I experienced the joy of kids and adults learning actively in nature; every day I personally learned something special.
I had never worked in environmental education — fortunately, when I came in as the Director of Education, an experienced and talented team was in place. Education is more than a series of techniques and the environmental educators on the Ed team wanted the experiences for the children to go beyond the “Pied Piper” activities of typical outdoor camps. The goal was to foster deep learning about the natural and cultural environment and to develop a life-long commitment to stewardship. Especially exciting was the opportunity to train graduate students with a hands-on, thoughtful curriculum. Expectations for excellence were high!
The IslandWood graduate program, in partnership with the University of Washington and other universities, is a unique and powerful way to train educators who will apply their skills in formal and informal situations. Time after time I saw graduate students arrive at IslandWood inexperienced, somewhat naïve, and even realistically a bit afraid of the tasks before them. With the mentoring and support of the education staff, the thoughtful curriculum of the graduate classes, the careful structure of the 4-day programs for 4th – 6th graders, including the arts, and teamwork, and the experience of teaching very diverse groups of children week after week, their confidence and skills grew steadily. The relationships in the graduate cohort model promoted collegial learning and support. Now over 450 of IslandWood’s graduates are making amazing contributions as educators in formal and informal work around the country and even overseas. My own niece, Morgan Altman, arrived at IslandWood in the 2003 graduate class as an English major with minimal teaching experience, especially with children from low-income families. She completed her master’s degree, taught environmental sciences to inner city kids in Brooklyn New York, became the math and science coach in an all-girls school for students of color in the south Bronx, and is now a math faculty coach at Bank Street College of Education working with New York City public school teachers. She credits IslandWood!
From the beginning, commitment to underserved kids, schools, and families was a prominent part of IslandWood’s mission. In the first few years, when there were financial challenges it would have been easy to prioritize schools that could pay full fees — but we remained committed to the children who would not have family resources to come to IslandWood. With the support of the founders and the board, scholarship money was available. The education team, as part of the school partnerships program, worked with school administrators to help initiate fundraisers at the school level.
Another strength in maintaining the diversity of our student population was the accommodation once the schools came to IslandWood. The design of the lodge rooms with a private shower area was absolutely essential for families of certain cultures. The kitchen responded with menus designed to accommodate a variety of cultures. A personal example: I was taking a taxi to the airport and the driver was Ethiopian. I chatted with him about his family and he told me his son was a fifth grader at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle. My daughter had gone to Hawthorne and I was particularly excited that the school was planning to come to IslandWood within the next few months. When I mentioned this he said his son was absolutely not coming to any “camp“. I realized the word was associated with refugee camps. I talked a little bit about our program and encouraged him to talk with other Ethiopian families in his community whose children might have come to IslandWood previously. I even volunteered to give him and his son a little tour on a Saturday or Sunday before the school was scheduled to come. I gave him my card. I never heard from him but when the school was at IslandWood I checked the roster, and his son was among the attendees!
Staff from other environmental education centers often asked how we at IslandWood were so successful in maintaining cultural diversity among our schools. I related some of the things mentioned above, but I think one of the most important things was the school partnership arrangement built into the program design. All the grad students were assigned two or three schools that they would visit before the school was scheduled to come. They would give presentations to students and parents, show pictures and talk about the program. After the schools’ experience at IslandWood, the school partnership liaison would go back to the school and work with the teachers and the students to apply the learnings from IslandWood to their classroom curriculum and school site. [IslandWood graduate students and staff still give presentations to students and parents in an Orientation gathering prior to coming to the School Overnight Program.]
During my time on staff, the IslandWood education team was fortunate to have some important grants from the Allen Foundation, National Geographic, the Russell Family Foundation, and others which allowed us to both reflect on and expand our work. For example, we had a grant from the Allen Foundation to do an assessment of the impact of environmental education. We created an advisory board and invited staff from other environmental centers and the Seattle Aquarium and Seattle Zoo to attend a three-day conference with national experts. The collegial energy was inspiring and helped us build partnerships with our peers.
When I decided I was old enough to retire I was absolutely delighted that I could stay at IslandWood for an additional four years in a half-time position developing and managing outreach and partnerships. It was at that point that we absorbed a small nonprofit called Homewaters which worked with Seattle schools. We also developed a relationship with the Brightwater Education Center in Woodinville contracting with King County to provide educational services and programs there. [IslandWood has continued our partnership with King County over the years and still delivers programs for Seattle area schools at Brightwater, and this school year, will begin delivering programs at the South Plant in Renton.] During those years we had a grant from the Allen Foundation to work with Boys and Girls Cubs of King County and Seattle Parks and Recreation. These partnerships provided paid internship experiences for graduate students and opportunities for them to work with Seattle teens of diverse populations who were committed to the environment. Some of these teens had actually participated as elementary students at IslandWood!
As I eased into full retirement in 2013, I was anxious to stay connected to IslandWood, and an obvious way to do that was to become a Docent. That has been a very important part of my life for the last few years. When I think about the future for IslandWood I have several hopes: the commitment to diversity will remain (that seems very strong for IslandWood right now;) the history of the programs and place will be honored and be a regular part of IslandWood’s story and mission; and also, that there will be the support and energy to maintain the high quality of staff, board members and supporters. Covid was a very big challenge, and an interruption to IslandWood’s work, and the organization handled it with creativity and adaptation.
I am so very grateful for the time I spent working at IslandWood – it was a wonderful way to end a 47-year career in education! I look forward to IslandWood’s continued impact on education and our planet!”
Thank you Pat, for all you’ve done for IslandWood, and for all you continue to do, to create learning experiences that inspire care for our planet!
If you haven’t already, subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the know about IslandWood news and updates, stories from our programs, and more.