Mary Edgley remembers a time when she taught an entire marine animal lesson inside a giant, inflatable whale in the field outside the small, three-room schoolhouse in the woods.
She remembers bringing in artists and musicians to teach special lessons to the students, and planning field trips to Canada.
And she remembers going to drop off her substitute papers – how she was introduced to the school – and getting lost because there was no directional sign, but only a dirt road that curved around a corner that led to the secluded schoolhouse. When she arrived that day, the door was open but nobody was there. Instead, a boy came running across the field, told her he forgot his boots, and ran back the way he came. Turns out, the class had been learning in the woods.
For more than a decade, Edgley was the only teacher for four grade levels at Point Roberts Primary. Not much has changed, except Edgley now teaches fourth grade in Blaine and Jessie Hettinga has filled her place as lead teacher at the unique school.
“From the first day I saw the school it was this magical school in the woods. … It’s more like a family than a classroom in a lot of ways. … You get kids that don’t know what a letter is or how to hold a pencil, and they come in and you’re it, everything that they learn you’re responsible for,” Edgley said. “Watching those kids grow and learn and bond together over the years is pretty amazing. … It’s just a unique and wonderful opportunity for the kids.”
REMOTE AND NECESSARY
Point Roberts Primary serves students from kindergarten through third grade. Point Roberts is 55 miles north of Bellingham, 23 of them through British Columbia. It’s a small lobe of land south of Vancouver, B.C. on the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula – while Point Roberts is part of Whatcom County, the only way there is through Canada. Point Roberts’ population was listed as 1,314, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
The primary school, which has been around for decades, now sits on land donated by the Point Roberts Parks and Recreation District. The land was leased for $1 a year for 99 years, beginning in 1995, with the option to renew the lease for another 99 years – the schoolhouse was built in 1994. Point Roberts Primary is what is known as a “remote and necessary” school, and is one of only eight in Washington state.
Remote and necessary schools are those that are needed because there are outside situations, such as location, international borders, or dangerous waterways or road conditions that either restrict students from attending other schools or make it incredibly difficult for them. Remote and necessary schools are required to meet a specific set of criteria to earn the designation, which also determines their funding.
Point Roberts Primary is part of the Blaine School District, and is the smallest school in Whatcom County. Craig Baldwin, its principal, said the district works hard to keep the school connected, and he acknowledged the financial strains that come with running a 15-student schoolhouse.
“The beauty of Point Roberts is that it doesn’t fit in a box,” Baldwin said. “The important thing about Point Roberts, and schools that do it differently, is that we preserve the idea that education can be done in different ways. And we preserve some ideas around starting with the child, starting with the family and starting with the community.”
A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
For Edgley, teaching multiage grades was both a blessing and a curse, and Hettinga echoes her sentiments. Because there are only 15 students there this year and no set bell schedule, Hettinga can structure her days and tailor her lessons and homework to each student, making sure every child is learning at their own pace and level, regardless of grade level or age.
“There’s so many opportunities with out of the box learning. … One size education doesn’t fit all, so when you have so many unique students and you have so many needs they have, you need to be able to cater to those kids,” Hettinga said. “In a small school you have the ability to group not by grade but by where they’re currently at in the curriculum, so you can give a much deeper experience for them versus a one size fits all mentality.”
This year, as part of a year-long underwater and sea life lesson, the students will travel to all four beaches in Point Roberts, as well as take additional field trips. They also did a fall exercise on the life cycle of an apple and did everything from creating apple prints and apple art to making applesauce to give out at their open house, Hettinga said. While some of the lessons are first or third grade topics, she provides elements for all four grade levels to introduce them to the content and engage the students in different ways.
Candy Downs, whose 7-year-old son currently attends Point Roberts Primary, said she appreciates that her son gets to interact with both younger and older students. She said the school provides the opportunities for students to become leaders.
“I think it’s really an amazing thing that they get to have these different roles instead of just being in one age group or one set of peers,” Downs said. “I think it sets a really good example for responsibility, especially as they get older.”
Downs acknowledged that the small setting does have drawbacks, such as the students having to transfer to Blaine or somewhere similar in fourth grade, or if their friends are older and leave, or if they don’t get along with the other students. Downs said she feels grateful her son can attend a small public school, though.
“My son comes home from school very happy and very inspired and very excited about going the next day. I think when they have that base for their younger years where they get excited about school, I just think that’s so valuable,” Downs said.
For Hettinga, the drawbacks come in the form of time management and wearing multiple hats. Because she’s the only lead teacher and has to create curricula for four grade levels, she said she spends a lot of time prepping for the following school day. In the classroom, multitasking becomes key, she said, and she often has students working individually or in peer groups while she’s teaching a separate lesson to another group.
Because there’s only her and two instructional assistants, Hettinga is responsible for teaching music, gym, art and other school activities throughout the day, while also dealing with parents or other school-related meetings.
Still, she said the flexibilities and opportunities outweigh the struggles.
Hettinga said she has no plans to go elsewhere and is hoping to develop more relationships within the community, to help provide the students with more learning opportunities.
“Because it’s so small and because we know the kids so well and can work with them individually, we see them blossom into being confident, enjoying themselves at school and are not fearful,” Hettinga said. “It’s super rewarding to get to see them change and grow independently.”