Swan School staffer April Thompson admires a feelings illustration kept inside Emily Gohn’s classroom, which has become a storage room since Swan went all outdoors. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

Swan School staffer April Thompson admires a feelings illustration kept inside Emily Gohn’s classroom, which has become a storage room since Swan went all outdoors. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

During pandemic, school takes learning outside

Heat, winter weather not obstacles for private organization

PORT TOWNSEND — When school has gone completely out of doors, a heat wave is no picnic.

Last month at the private, year-round Swan School, a canopy with sprinklers was set up to keep students cool, and some parents opted to keep their children home on the scorcher days.

But it was last winter, Swan parent and staffer April Thompson said, that was the real test of mettle.

“Every kid had a lap blanket,” said Thompson, who is mom to three boys and the school’s advancement coordinator.

She remembers the 35-degree days with the entire student body — preschoolers through sixth-graders — gathered around fire pits and wearing face masks plus triple layers of clothing.

The 2020-21 Swan year proved it can be done: 65 youngsters and nine teachers can go all-outside in the far Pacific Northwest.

“We really believe kids needed to be in school; kids needed to be together,” Bonnie White, assistant head of the school, said last Thursday. It was the penultimate day of an academic year she said turned out to be a magical one.

Mariela Pace, 9, looks forward to summer break from Swan School, which takes just five weeks off during July and August. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

Mariela Pace, 9, looks forward to summer break from Swan School, which takes just five weeks off during July and August. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

Swan School first opened in 1983 in rented space at the Quimper Grange hall, said White, one of the founding parents. After about four years, community support helped purchase the building on 1 acre of land at 2345 Kuhn St.

Today the school is a place where ukulele strumming can be heard during music class under one canopy, art teacher Dana Weir introduces her students to Navajo pottery under another, and Dena Odell teaches open-air theater.

But now summer’s here, and the time is right for a five-week break.

Swan runs on a “balanced calendar,” Thompson said, so school starts again next month — but not with traditional academics right away.

The new year begins Aug. 16 with a week of “camp — it’s just fun, and bonding with their new classmates,” Thompson said.

Henry Norris just finished up first grade at Swan School in Port Townsend, which held classes outdoors all year. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

Henry Norris just finished up first grade at Swan School in Port Townsend, which held classes outdoors all year. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

When Swan School resumed its classes last summer, camp was especially important. School had abruptly ended with the onset of the pandemic, so kids hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to friends and teachers.

In Emily Gohn’s class, the students created a big drawing of a human body, filled with and surrounded by feelings. Words such as nervous, shy and excluded, which Gohn wrote outside the body, represented how her kids said they didn’t want to feel. Inside the body were their preferred emotions: playful, excited, included and goofy.

When Swan administrators decided in mid-2020 to run all programs outdoors, protocols were straightforward. Then as now, masks were required; if kids do go inside, they practice social distancing.

Today, while all of Swan’s teachers are vaccinated, their students are too young yet.

Masking has not been an issue for these youngsters, Thompson said. At this point, wearing a face covering is much like wearing socks.

Classes at Swan are combined and given names: preschoolers are the Discoverers; kindergartners and first-graders are Explorers; third- and fourth-graders are Navigators, and fifth- and sixth-graders Adventurers.

Because of a surge in the kindergarten and first-grade students this past year, the school has a new class: the Trailblazers, now in first and second grade.

That influx of 5- and 6-year-olds in 2020 happened, Thompson believes, because online school wasn’t working for that age group.

“Tricky to wrangle kindergartners at all, let alone virtually,” she said. Her own 5-year-old son, a Swan student, is “like a human pinball.”

In her outdoor classroom at Swan School, art teacher Dana Weir introduces students to Navajo and Pueblo traditions. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

In her outdoor classroom at Swan School, art teacher Dana Weir introduces students to Navajo and Pueblo traditions. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Daily News)

There were also many families who needed to work outside the home, which meant homeschooling or hybrid learning was unsustainable, Thompson added.

Swan maintains a student-teacher ratio of 1:8 for preschoolers and 1:16 for kindergarten through sixth grade, Thompson noted. The school is looking to hire two new educators as second- and third-grade teacher Karen Akins retires after 18 years at Swan.

Like her colleagues, Akins had to reinvent her work style for this new era, Thompson said, adding the 2021-22 academic year is expected to be another one outdoors.

Field trips are big, too: Recent forays include Jefferson Land Trust’s Illahee Preserve to observe the salmon stream; a bi-valve clamming discovery at Point Hudson with parent volunteer and marine biologist Kat Meyer; North Beach and H.J. Carroll county parks; the Larry Scott Trail and forts Worden and Townsend.

First-grader Henry Norris said Fort Worden was his favorite outing. When asked how it was to attend school in the rain last fall, winter and spring, he said only that it was “pretty good,” and then rushed off to his next class.

Thompson is careful to note that there were a few days when outdoor learning was untenable: a couple in September, when wildfire smoke destroyed air quality, and one freezing February day. But for many wintry weeks, Swan’s teachers and students set up around those fire pits, which Fort Worden donated.

The kids learned fire safety skills and practiced them without fail, even the preschoolers, Thompson said.

“We smelled like campfires every day, but at least we were warmer,” she said.

It wasn’t easy bundling up her three boys each morning, she said.

“Everybody has extra pairs of rain pants now, and we found out which jackets actually were waterproof.”

Yet she wouldn’t trade Swan for indoor learning. Thompson likes the culture of openness and parental involvement.

This is no hoity-toity prep academy; “we’re very much a nonprofit,” Thompson said.

“We’re proud to be an alternative option in our community. We’re able to meet kids right where they are on their educational path,” she added.

This appeals to parents in Jefferson County. Swan will welcome 75 students next month, Thompson said, with waiting lists for the lower grades.

For tuition and other information about Swan School, see swanschool.org.

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]

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