CHIMACUM — Let’s go outside and marvel, Katherine “Kit” Pennell says to her pupils.
And she doesn’t just say it; Pennell lives and demonstrates her love for the natural world — and all of the children in it, whatever their challenges.
A longtime Chimacum School District teacher, Pennell has won the Patsy Collins Award for Excellence in Education, a statewide prize from the nonprofit IslandWood center and the Seattle Foundation.
The award comes with $5,000 and the affirmation that this has been an extraordinarily tough year for everybody in school.
Faced with the prospect of being photographed in Chimacum Elementary School’s garden, Pennell insisted her students come to the foreground. Being surrounded by her kids, she said, “is who I am.”
This fourth-grade teacher didn’t go on much beyond that. Pennell’s colleagues, however, are fierce in their descriptions of her.
Judith Rubin of the Northwest Watershed Institute nominated Pennell for the Patsy Collins Award.
“Kit led the efforts to help NWI launch the Youth Environmental Stewards (YES!) program, and served as a special educational advisor to ensure the needs of differently-abled students were met,” Rubin wrote in her letter.
“Specifically, she worked with NWI’s staff to ensure we had tactics to meet the needs of students with dyslexia, disgrafia, anxiety, and personal/home challenges.”
“Kit advocated for each student personally, often extolling the virtues of a student who did not thrive in the classroom, but whom she knew would do well in an applied, outdoor program,” Rubin noted.
Time after time, she watched Pennell championing girls and boys who were struggling.
“For each student she recommended to our program, she would first emphasize talents and strengths, and only later mention their challenges, if relevant … When I told Kit that our organization was not trained to meet the needs of some of these students, she came on board as a special advisor,” Rubin added.
“With her depth and range and teaching skill, she could easily be a college professor. But Kit’s commitment to public education is so fierce that she’s stayed in the Chimacum School District” for some three decades.
“Kit is personally responsible for igniting an environmental interest in hundreds if not thousands of students over the years.”
Pennell expressed gratitude to her own mentors and to philanthropist and civic leader Patsy Collins herself. She also admitted she didn’t originally plan on a teaching career.
Growing up south of Portland, Ore., a “lucky kid!” as she puts it, Pennell played outside, surrounded by siblings, an extended family of foreign exchange students and her “wise, hardworking parents and grandparents.”
She got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon and moved to Hawaii, where she studied geology and botany while working at Volcanoes National Park.
Then came a job as a fisheries biologist with NOAA, where she earned enough money to go traveling, stopping to work in France, Greece and Norway.
Then it was back to Oregon, where she did graduate work and got a teaching degree.
“I told my friends I would just teach a few years and go back to science,” Pennell recalled.
“Thirty years later, I remain absolutely enchanted witnessing the wonder, curiosity and inspiration in young learners,” she said.
“And what could be more fun than learning right along with them?”
Shelby Smith remembers Pennell from a few decades ago as her eighth-grade science teacher — and a mentor who changed her life.
“Kit Pennell is magic. First, she has a gift for connecting deeply with students,” said Smith, who works with the Jefferson County Community Wellness Project (JCCWP.org).
When Smith went on to high school, she entered Chimacum’s Pi alternative education program, joining Pennell to study marine biology.
That led to majoring in environmental education and a career in conservation and community development.
Brie Van Cleve, also a student in the 1990s, learned from Pennell how to design a monitoring project: tracking an invasive cordgrass on Puget Sound beaches.
“It was real science,” she remembered, with lots of beach walking across Jefferson County.
Later, while working for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Van Cleve coordinated and managed grants to fund many other citizen science projects.
“I credit no one more than Kit,” she added, for introducing her to a life as a scientist.
Julianne Bonnell, a Chimacum Junior-Senior High School science teacher, also remembers Pennell as an educator who gave her kids time. She walked beside them out the door, Bonnell said, “play in and explore the wild world.”
When asked how she might use the monetary prize, Pennell touted local restoration groups: the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, North Olympic Salmon Coalition and Jefferson Land Trust are a few.
“I will re-invest Patsy Collins’ funds to strengthen this local fabric,” she said, “and after a year without taking any field trips, I may not have to write grants to fund some adventures in the years ahead.”
For Pennell, being with kids — in the midst of mountains, beaches, forests — is its own reward.
“I feel tremendously honored,” she writes on her Chimacum Elementary webpage, “to support young people in finding their place as citizens and scientists,” both locally and on the whole planet Earth.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] news.com.