The newest natural wonder -- environmental center debuts

Workers apply a final coat of sealant to the concrete floor of the main dining room while a disembodied voice tests the audio system.

But these are just last-minute details.

The buildings are ready, the paths are groomed.

Next Tuesday, when the first group of kids arrive at the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center for a three-night stay, four-and-a-half years of planning, fundraising, construction and program development will be realized.

“I’m so thrilled,” PSELC co-founder Debbie Brainerd said. “This will be the first time we have kids running around.

“The truth is, it’s time to do what we came here to do.”

The center is running four-day/three night pilot programs through the second week of June.

The first groups of children – who hail from Seattle schools with a high number of free-and-reduced lunches – are highly subsidized by scholarship.

“We wanted to focus on a target population of schools who do not receive residential environmental education,” acting director of education Jayasiri Ghosh said.

Students from Bainbridge’s Island School will visit later in April, as will youngsters from the Suquamish and Little Boston reservations.

First eyes, ears

On Tuesday, the first group of 46 fourth and fifth graders from Seattle’s John Muir School and First Place, a school for homeless children, will decompress from the trip across the sound by taking the “scenic route” from the welcome shelter to the main center.

But first, graduate student liaison Lisa Kittelman will teach them the “banana slug sign,” the index-finger-and-pinky-up that mimics the slug’s antennae and means “silence.”

After hauling luggage to the lodge where they will sleep, the kids will grab what they need for the day and head for the Friendship Circle - an understated name for PSELC’s grand, covered amphitheater.

“The first day is about a sense of ‘place,’” PSELC school partnerships coordinator Karen Matsumoto said, “and getting to know groups of people.”

Once oriented, the kids will be immersed in activities geared to a deeper understanding of the relationship of self to the natural world and to community.

They will study ecosystems and the watershed, macro and micro worlds, little and big critters. They will count bugs in the wetlands, bogs, pond, stream, marsh, estuary or forest that comprise the center’s 255 acres, instantly sending data to classroom computers with palm pilots.

They will use natural dyes on fabric to design patterns that reflect the watershed and craft a performance to interpret the forms of particular plants.

“We’ll sketch in the field,” arts coordinator Lee Ann Woolery said, “but it’s so much more than that. The arts - music, performance, digital photography and video - will all expand students’ understanding of natural systems and cultural communities.”


Students will also gain a deeper understanding of the impact of their own “footprint” in nature.

After meals, they will weigh the food they have not consumed in a giant scale to see what is wasted. They will view the innards of the center’s composting toilets through a glass wall.

At the end of the day, they will journal and engage in what Brainerd calls the the “three R’s,” recreation, reflection and relaxation before an early lights-out.

Videotaped feedback from each group of departing students will analyzed.

“The nice thing is, the schools say they know it’s a pilot program,” Dumouchel said, “and they know things will need tweaking.”

PSELC teaching staff visit classrooms to coordinate with existing school curricula before students’ PSELC stay.

And, the PSELC vision has youngsters bringing back what they have learned to their home environments.

“If they do ‘nature-mapping,’” school and teacher programs coordinator Denise Dumouchel said, “that information will go into a database used by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It’s not so much what happens here, it’s what happens when they go home.”

The children who come to PSELC will encounter a distinguished education team of naturalists, artists, technicians and graduate interns assembled from all over the nation by the Brainerds.

Ghosh comes to PSELC from a 15-year stint as head of Seattle Country Day School, university positions and a tenure as president of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools.

Dumouchel, who has been education director for the Headlands Institute in California, left an assistant professorship at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. School partnerships coordinator Karen Matsumoto also taught university-level classes and worked as a naturalist for the National Parks Service, while Woolery lectured at the Art Institute of Chicago.

PSELC is distinct from a nonprofit in the level of expertise demanded of employees, Ghosh and Dumouchel say.

“In the nonprofit world, people wear many hats,” Dumouchel said. “But here, we’re expected to be specialists.”

Ghosh points to the higher degree of accountability in the business model and an orientation to customer service. Gathering information from potential clients - the focus groups that met for more than a year – has helped the staff and Brainerd to shape the center and the center’s programs.

Many hands

When the center opens fully in the fall, 2,000 to 3,000 students will visit the center each year, with a mix of public, private and home schooled kids participating .

PSELC is already signing up schools.

“We’re filling up really fast,” Matsumoto said. “Of 35 slots, we’ve already scheduled 10. I got five phone calls today and I’m meeting with eight schools this week.”

The center’s overnight programs next fall will continue to serve fourth and fifth graders.

The choice of age group is largely logistical, Dumouchel admits; it’s easier to schedule youngsters who are taught by one teacher, rather than sceudle around the several teachers sixth graders encounter.

PSELC hopes to partner with schools in finding funding, looking to foundations and to individual donors to fully fund some schools.

The center is aiming for a $5 million scholarship endowment and an operating endowment of $10 million.

PSELC has raised 83 percent toward the capital campaign goal of 52 million, Brainerd notes, with $14 million still to raise.

Construction and land acquisition costs total $37 million.

The annual operating budget for the center will be $3 million. The center expects to find half of the center’s operating budget from visitors.

“We hope to grow the revenue to 60 percent,” Brainerd said.

As the Brainerd’s vision of merging science, art and technology in the natural environment comes online, Brainerd says she appreciates the warm reception the Brainerd’s vision has received on the island.

“We do want to take the opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to Bainbridge,” Debbie Brainerd said, “for four-and-a-half years of warm welcome, for letting us create this project here. For participating in focus groups, and thank you for your monetary contributions.”

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