Port Townsend’s small Jefferson Community School has international reach

History teacher Craig Frick of Sequim

History teacher Craig Frick of Sequim

PORT TOWNSEND — Small school, big dreams.

Nestled in downtown Port Townsend among the boutique shops, cafes and bistros, in a three-story building once used as a Templar Hall, is a gateway to the world.

Founded in 2004, Jefferson Community School at 280 Quincy St. has grown in recent years and now boasts about 35 students.

With a staff of less than 10, the independent, private nonprofit school accredited by the Northwest Accreditation Commission is one of the smaller schools in the area.

What it lacks in size, it makes up for in geographic vision, staff members say.

“It’s a cool school. The education is individualized, to a large extent,” said Craig Frick, a Sequim resident who teaches history and civics and works as assistant head of school.

“There’s a lot of free choice in their education, which empowers them,” Frick said.

The school will host its annual dinner and auction fundraiser from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. April 30.

The Year of the Monkey Gala will be at the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St.

Tickets are $80 and are available in advance on the website at www.jeffersoncommunityschool.com.

They also will be offered at the door.

Head of School Rita Hemsley, who has a doctorate, came to the school three years ago to oversee a program that had seen enrollment drop to 17 students and was in danger of closing.

Through reaching out to outlying communities and countries — three of the three dozen students this year are from Sequim and two are from China — that number has grown each year.

Next school year, the staff expects to have as many as five international students, Hemsley said, and the school is open to youths across the region. (The school has two buses and transports the three Sequim students daily.)

“That’s looking like a hot ticket,” she said. “Families are really looking at independent [education] as an option.”

The school can issue I-20 forms for visas, so international students can study at the school indefinitely, Hemsley said.

“We’re on a trajectory,” she said. “I thought, ‘Let’s look at the international community.’ And it keeps our mission.”

That mission being “Community at Home, Kinship Abroad,” Frick said.

Each year, the entire school makes at least one out-of-country, three- to four-week journey as part of the curriculum. Last school year, it was Belize, this year Vietnam and next year, students will travel to Cuba.

Other excursions have included Guatemala and Cambodia, Frick said.

It’s not all posh hotels and stays either, he said.

“We’re a backpack-and-boots-on-the-ground [kind of school],” said Frick, who spent 20-plus years abroad and has visited or lived in 46 countries.

“Our kids have gone on to do some amazing things,” he said.

The school uses the Harkness method, a teaching style usually done at a circular or oval table to discuss ideas with only occasional teacher intervention.

Frick describes the school’s approach as not only “hands-on” but “experimental and exploratory,” and that takes full shape on Wednesdays, the school’s field science day.

Many of the school’s students leave the school to take part in programs such as learning skills in aviation, equestrian, cosmology, acting (through Key City Theatre), sea rescue and scuba.

Students are encouraged to find mentors and internships.

Not all hands-on lessons at Jefferson Community School involve big itineraries.

Students are developing a rain garden just outside the school.

In addition to studying stormwater runoff, the youths are recording the volume of water collected and soil needed, diagramming the space they have and look to complete its construction this spring.

They can do the same for other various groups in Port Townsend, Hemsley said.

The school also features art classes (including an on-site kiln), digital photography and video lessons.

Jefferson Community School students tutor younger students at Swan School, an independent school for preschool through sixth grade in Port Townsend.

A highlight each year, Frick said, is what the school calls the Winter Symposium, a two-week session in between semesters — something commonly used at the collegiate level as an intermediate term — where students take on a project for an additional science credit.

“We’re looking to give them hands-on science,” Frick said.

This school year’s project welcomed 14 middle and high school students and faculty from China and Taiwan as part of the school’s first science symposium on marine sciences, focusing on a study of the local eelgrass beds along the Port Townsend waterfront.

Using underwater ROVs, students and their international counterparts — about 55 in all — examined the impact of eelgrass on the levels of zooplankton and phytoplankton and, as one student put it, “what the ocean looks like with and without the eelgrass.”

In the Pope Marine Building on the wharf in Port Townsend, students worked side-by-side with local marine biologists and environmental scientists to develop and test their hypotheses.

Their baseline study and winter eelgrass count is something that’s never been done before in Port Townsend, Frick said.

The school requires tuition, though several students receive some form of scholarship to attend, Frick said.

For more information, see the website or call 360-385-0622.

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Michael Dashiell is an editor with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at mdashiell@sequimgazette.com.

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