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A small school thinks big

Eagle Harbor High School teacher Ken Ragsdale asks his class to interpret images in contemporary media in light of the racial issues raised in the Gettysburg Address. The school, which opened its doors this year, has 70 students enrolled, with capacity for 150-200. - Jesse Beals/Staff Photo
Eagle Harbor High School teacher Ken Ragsdale asks his class to interpret images in contemporary media in light of the racial issues raised in the Gettysburg Address. The school, which opened its doors this year, has 70 students enrolled, with capacity for 150-200.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/Staff Photo

Eagle Harbor High teens learn to lead – and to give.

There are four tables in the classroom, placed at odd angles.

And there are just four kids per table.

All eyes are on an overhead projection of a New Yorker magazine cover featuring a child caught in a floodlight against a graffitied brick wall, CDs in both hands.

Ken Ragsdale’s Eagle Harbor High School students are evaluating the image, looking for racial stereotypes, interpreting meaning in the light of their recent study of the Gettysburg Address.

“Is it useful to infer, to interpret, to have a critical eye for things?” Ragsdale asks the first class of EHHS freshmen. “Both documents have dates – September 2003 and September 1863. Does that help with interpretation?”

Ragsdale challenges the students to consider contemporary effects of the Civil War, to scrutinize the magazine cover in the context of battle lines drawn a century and a half ago – and to find a voice through the discussion.

“I think voice is at the core of what we’re doing here,” he said. “When you stand up and use your voice...”

It may be easier for students to find that voice at the school that opened its doors this year, with an enrollment of about 70 students in the newly renovated Commodore building.

“We have (in Bainbridge High School) a high school that does an excellent job in what it does,” EHHS Principal Catherine Camp said. “But students here may have more opportunity to be participatory.”

Eagle Harbor is an example of the “small schools” model supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Camp notes that attitudes toward smaller schools has changed since she established the model on the island in 1996, launching the constellation of alternative programs that became Commodore Options.

“Thank you to Gates,” Camp said. “We’ve tried to say that for years.”

Past ‘seat time’

Eagle Harbor High School grew out of the Bainbridge Contract Studies program, which focused on independent study.

As Odyssey kids matured, expanding into a high school made sense, Camp says.

The program combines traditional classroom learning – “seat time” – with an independent study model, increasing the self-directed component as students mature.

“We discovered in Contract Studies that if you get kids into a lot of independent study before they are ready, the success rate is not as high,” Camp said.

A smaller student body means more attention for each student – especially in the classroom.

“If you’re running a class of 30 students and you’re holding a discussion, you’ll find five or six people are participating while the rest are passive,” Camp said. “It’s the nature of a large class; you’ll have those front-row kids.”

In the smaller class, the role of the teacher is more likely to shift, said department head Marit Krueger, from “‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side.’”

Most of the school’s seven teachers work part-time for the high school and also teach in other Commodore Options programs.

The school, consisting of six classrooms housed in the northeast wing of Commodore Center, can accommodate 150-200 students.

The campus will be expanded over the next three years, with the first phase – enclosing a courtyard on the school’s east side to provide a commons area for the students – to be completed this summer.

“Right now they are eating leaning against the lockers,” Krueger said. “We call it ‘the study hall.’”

But morale is high, and students bring in bean-bag chairs and other seating arrangements to make themselves at home in the halls.

About one-third of the student body came through the Odyssey program. Another third has been home-schooled; some went to private schools; and the remainder have been in the traditional public school model.

EHHS is not intended to do “dropout retrieval” Camp says.

Instead, it attracts a cross-section of students, like the Contract Studies from which it grew – a program that sent a National Merit Finalist to the U.S. Naval Academy and a classics scholar to Oxford.

Outside class

Like Bainbridge High School, EHH requires 22 credits for graduation and grades are on a 4.0 scale or pass/fail.

There are some advanced classes that EHHS doesn’t offer, but coordinated scheduling enables EHHS students to take classes at BHS.

The flow doesn’t work the other way, however; BHS students can’t take classes at Eagle Harbor.

“It’s helped us grow an identity to not have those high school kids come down for a class or two,” Camp said.

For some students, the new-found voice in class carries outside the classroom walls as they participate in shaping their new school.

Student priorities are forming an Associated Student Body to support extra-curricular activities; establishing a student council; creating a file of community-based internships; and creating a system of peer tutoring.

“We’re just building our site council,” Camp said. “In the initial meeting, we had 11 students show up to say what voice they wanted to have in leadership.”

As the four years go by, students may well be studying more outside of the school setting.

The community-based projects on which freshmen spend their Fridays will grow, by senior year, into 90-hour internships and other experiential learning.

Rather than traditional “work study,” EHHS emphasizes learning with a service component.

This year’s freshmen have connected with community groups and businesses ranging from preschools and performing arts groups to veterinary clinics and the fire department.

One student, who felt she had benefitted from all the extracurricular art classes she had taken during her elementary years, taught a class for third- and fourth-graders.

EHHS senior Forrest Nichols, who joined Contract Studies from Kingston High School in his sophomore year, has been apprenticed to a blacksmith, intensively studied botany and helped organize the school district’s first Language Fair last year.

“I like being able to design my own curriculum with my teachers, and to study things I’m really interested in,” Nichols said.

The increasingly independent learning of EHHS students should set a trajectory to carry graduates forward in their studies, Camp says.

“I was working on my master’s years ago when I first saw the phrase ‘autonomous learner,’” she said.

“I read every piece of literature to find out what an adult autonomous learner is – and how you get students there. The design of Eagle Harbor is based on that research.”

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