By Aimée Cartier
For The Beachcomber
As the school year comes to a close, one island school is celebrating its success at what few were able to do this year worldwide: a completely in-person school year with zero COVID cases.
Last August, in the midst of the pandemic and the movement for racial equality, Vashon Green School (VGS) founder and lead teacher, Dana Schuerholz, was grappling with these questions: How do we create a learning environment that allows children to be safe and thrive within a global pandemic? How do we answer the call for reparations in the form of education equity?
Since then, this small island private school, serving nearly 30 students, has been quietly prioritizing the mental health of their students, safely learning in-person during a pandemic, addressing racial equity and making reparations.
VGS students started their year by studying “Climate Justice Heroes”— activists and others in the world who are making change and protecting the earth.
According to Schuerholz, the unit was designed to give children hope and inspiration in a time of lockdown, great uncertainty and fear.
“We all need role models,” she said. “We need the stories of trailblazers who have gone before us—who have experienced setbacks, faced challenges and taken action that has made a difference and helped to make this world a better place.”
As the school’s proprietor, Schuerholz was able to make the choices that addressed her bigger questions. At the start of the year, she told her team that their commitment was to teach children how to live and learn safely in this pandemic — in community.
“We don’t want to teach these kids how to learn in front of a screen for who knows how long — knowing that their social and emotional health and literacy are the biggest part of our responsibility as primary educators. Because everything else spins off of that,” she said.
So for starters — without knowing how she was going to pay for it — Schuerholz and her staff sought out island families in need that were especially burdened by the pandemic and online learning and offered five full scholarships to BIPOC families on Vashon.
To comply with CDC guidelines, she created three distinct zones and separate learning pods and moved all learning 100% outdoors. Saws and hammers could be heard throughout the school’s seven-acre farm campus through late summer and early fall as these changes required four new covered open-air classrooms, more composting toilets, and more plumbed sinks. Schuerholz had to hire more staff and create a gear library so that all students, regardless of financial ability, could be comfortable learning outdoors for six hours a day.
VGS also further increased enrollment to welcome several students from local public schools who were not thriving in online learning.
Victoria Wellington was one such student. After nearly a year of 100% online schooling, she joined VGS in February 2021.
Victoria’s mother, Rebecca Wellington, said she had reached out to VGS in January, on a whim and in a moment of desperation, to see if there was room for one more student to join mid-year. Her daughter, she said, had high anxiety.
“She was fearful, stressed — way too stressed out for a nine-year-old — and the online schooling was tearing her apart,” said Wellington.
It took Victoria a little more than a week to find her footing at VGS, she said.
“Since then, the transformation has been incredible,” Wellington said. “She would come home from school every day smiling and singing — in Spanish! She is kind, hopeful, and loving. She speaks about the earth and the animals and how we need to care for the place we live in. She speaks about equity and justice on a level that most kids her age can’t articulate. She grew up so much at VGS. She grew like a tree planted in rich soil.”
For 13 years, VGS has taught a curriculum rooted in the school’s values of social justice, environmental and ecological awareness, social and emotional fluency, and community connection.
Schuerholz believes that students shouldn’t have to wait until they are in high school to study current events.
“If we are going to teach kids how to make decisions in the world for their future, they’ve got to have the basics of understanding inequity and justice and have a foundation of what matters,” she said. “What matters is that everyone has enough to eat, has a home and feels safe. These are such basic things that we want to be teaching young kids that I can’t imagine not leaning into it and telling them what is happening. I want the kids to feel inspired by the stories and to be able to feel more connected to the people that are different from them.”
These lessons kept coming throughout the year.
For example, when Asian hate crimes broke out across the U.S. VGS students’ learning focused on the experience of a young Korean girl who first experienced bullying, and then later, compassion and reparations from her peers about her differences.
During the school’s “Black Lives Matter” unit, students learned how movements are built, and how many kinds of actions and forms of energy make change. They recited parts of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.” They learned about real-life trailblazers. They wrote their own recipes for what qualities it takes to be a trailblazer, imagining themselves as such.
VGS’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is mirrored in their staff.
Co-teacher and Mexico native, Lucia Armenta, leads the school’s bilingual Spanish/English fusion. Cassie Brown joined the staff this year from Allegheny College, where she co-founded Green Socs, a student-led organization with the mission of fostering students of color participation in the study of environmental science, sustainability, and environmental activism.
Sitting in the field at school for their year-end ceremony, spread out on the 30-plus stumps that the children positioned months ago at a safe distance apart, Schuerholz spoke to the 29 VGS students and their families who had gathered.
“This year was like building a ship as we sailed, navigating with all the tools we had, and building a shelter in the middle of a storm,” she said. “As a community, we made a commitment to care for each other. As adults we were fueled by the knowledge in our gut that the social and emotional well-being of young people in this crucial, primary building block moment of their lives insisted that we do whatever it took to safely be together, leaning in.”
Though they are celebrating their huge success of a full year of in-person schooling with zero COVID cases, these changes and innovations have come at a cost for this island school. Schuerholz had to take out a loan to pay her staff and cover the increased costs of this demanding year. A GoFundMe has been started with the hopes of helping VGS return to financial solvency and be able to continue its commitment to racial equity.
To find out more about the school, visit vashongreenschool.org or find VGS on Instagram or Facebook @vashongreenschool. To contribute to the school’s GoFundMe campaign, visit gofund.me/ca64993e.
Aimée Cartier is an island author, intuitive, and mother whose children go to Vashon Green School.