Petersburg: Recipe for a Successful School

Being at sea was a great experience. Capping it off with a tour of the Petersburg Public Schools by Dr. Rob Thomason, Superintendent, who took two hours out of a busy day to show me around made for a great conclusion. What I saw in those two hours was impressive and strikes me as the ingredients for a successful and thriving school. Students were engaged. Achievement was high. The environment was respectful. What was their recipe? Below are some of my thoughts of effective schools aligned with observations of what I saw within the Petersburg Public Schools.

The Petersburg skyline

The Petersburg skyline

Size – Petersburg is a small town (population 3,500) located on the northern end of Mitkof Island within the Inland Passage of SE Alaska. Affectionately known as the town that fish built, the community is largely self-sufficient with an economy built solely on the fishing industry. The residents of Petersburg are reliant on themselves. Their remote location demands it – providing a close-knit intimate community. There is a grand total of two school buses serving the community – one goes north, the other south. The high school has a graduating class in the 40s. The elementary school has 1.5 to 2 sections of each grade. Class sizes are in the upper teens to lower 20s. In a school this size, the superintendent walks the halls and greets students by name. Students get the attention they deserve. Teachers have the time and resource to provide a robust practice of differentiated instruction. Students struggling in their learning are able to be reached. I had the good fortune of a class size of 22 fourth graders for my first teaching assignment. My last years in an elementary school saw class sizes of 35 with a PreK–6 population of 800+. I could walk the halls and encounter students I had never met. I know first hand the profound impact class size and school size has on the amount of learning able to take place. When teachers, administrators, and school staff are working at these extremes a toll is taken. The remote, island location provides limits on the size that Petersburg will grow allowing it to maintain this commitment to low class sizes. Lessons learned from a thriving school with low class sizes provides a call to us all.

The Petersburg bus fleet

The Petersburg bus fleet

Authentic learning – Learning is most productive when students find it relevant, meaningful, and authentic. There was abundant evidence of a commitment to this kind of learning within the broadly defined walls of the schools. These walls are quick to disappear when a high school class can walk their students down to the harbor to board a boat to travel 25 miles to a nearby glacier to conduct glacial studies – an activity most of us will never experience in our lives. My tour included the Public Radio station across the street. Situated within was a broadcast booth hosted by students. An elementary class filled a display cabinet with their study of the culture of fish. Students lives are more bound by the tide tables than the clocks on the wall. Noting high achievement pass rates, Rob stated, “We are committed to high power learning. That takes care of the test scores and allows us the time to engage students in interesting learning.”

Nature – The Petersburg schools are nestled within some of the most majestic landscapes I have ever experienced. A causal walk down the hallway offers a picture window view onto a natural world dominated by ocean and snow capped mountains. Immediately surrounding the school and community are trails into the muskeg and mountains that dominate Mitkof Island. A 20 minute walk allows you to enter the world as the Tlingit, the area’s original inhabitants, may have experienced. The schoolyard of the elementary school houses a greenhouse and garden space allowing students hands-on experiences in nurturing life from the elements. Common spaces are filled with student artifacts of their exploration of the role of fish in the life of their community. I was treated by the culinary arts class to a plate of freshly made sushi rolls. A fourth grade class was making prints on white t-shirts by painting locally harvested fish and transferring to the shirt. Research points to student access to the natural world as a powerful element for deeply engaged learning. While we seek creative ways to bring this about in an urban core, it is a natural part of the everyday experience for Petersburg students. An elementary student’s writing on display at the local museum, captures it well.

“I find inspiration in our rain forests with the birds, the ocean water at the beach, picking berries in a quiet part of the forest, fishing along the shoreline at Eagle’s Roost Park, going to Blind Slough and catching baby frogs, and seeing wildlife as it passes near me.

All these things inspire me to look around and see what the world has and to slow down and enjoy some of these things while I am young and before responsibility gets to be a lot that I can’t enjoy these things.”

The muskegs of Mitkof Island

The muskegs of Mitkof Island

We owe it to all our children to help them find the natural spaces with that power to slow things down and awaken them to the grandeur around them. We need to listen to voice of this child, and lessons offered by schools like Petersburg, and provide for all our children the kind of learning environment where there names are known their needs are met, their spirits nurtured, and inspiration is commonplace.

I am thankful for this little glimpse into the Petersburg Public Schools. It offers much to aspire to.

About wlindquist

I'm a career educator currently teaching pre-service teachers at Hamline University - Master of Arts in Teaching program. Interested in science education, inquiry-based science, and the intersection of science and literacy.
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