From our founder...
As I sat in yet another retention meeting with parents and teachers, I wondered silently why so many of our students were not making sufficient progress. What was missing in teachers' attempt to help students succeed...a sprinkle of movement, a dash of humor, a pinch of demonstration, prompt, and practice, a dollop of hands-on activities...what was missing? During my administration of a small elementary school, I not only had experience with multiple students recommended for retention, but I also had one-on-one encounters with the little 3rd grader who "wouldn't listen" or the first grader that “didn’t pay attention” or the 5th grader that really wanted to do well but felt like the teachers didn’t understand. Despite attempts to provide quality instruction AND to provide social emotional support AND to provide engaging tasks and activities, teachers struggled. I met with parents who “didn’t know what to do with Johnny. He won’t sit down and do his homework.” “Suzie says school is boring. She doesn’t even want to come anymore.”
What was happening? Were there parts of the picture we were missing?
Reflecting and thinking back through my career in the classroom, I observed a change in the students from my first-year teaching to when I transitioned into administration. Students once eager to learn and easily engaged evolved into students who are uninterested, distracted, lacked focus, motivated only by immediate rewards, and lacking stamina to meet the demands of a traditional classroom. My usual strategies did not work anymore. Children couldn't sit for lengthy periods of time. Anxiety and frustration led to behavioral problems which affected the ability of many students to learn. A number of students became disillusioned or flustered, and the classroom became emotionally charged. Thinking back, I saw more students who felt inadequate, marginalized, and self-deprecating. For myself, I felt brokenhearted while trying to reach and inspire those students.
I don't believe I have any extraordinary qualities or attributes that other teachers do not possess. I am what you would expect from someone who is a teacher: passionate about students, dedicated to teaching, and hard-working. But I have another passion...a passion for the outdoors. I have a degree in Natural Resource Management with an emphasis on Forestry. While attending a small community college in Montana, I competed in logger sports (like Stihl Timber Sports). Years after obtaining my degree, I continued to compete across the west. I then pursued a variety of other careers before returning to school to earn my teaching degree. My pursuit of education did not end there, however, as I earned my Masters degree in Educational Leadership and my certificate for Superintendent.
In my teaching career, I have always looked for ways to get students outside and to challenge them. But even with this, there was some other reason, which eluded me, making it incredibly difficult for students to succeed.
Then on top of that, add Covid to the mix. I remember the first years of Covid as an administrator. I saw students become increasingly disengaged due to their absences, wearing masks, and general disconnection from school. Students were stressed, anxious, and fearful about what was going on around them.
I realized then that students' struggles were becoming increasingly prevalent, and the issue became one that I no longer could ignore.
What was different from my days as a student and now? Was there some change in society, some fundamental change in children?
That’s when it hit me, the “what” I was looking for. I had a large, combined family of seven siblings and through my childhood we lived in multiple locations throughout the Midwest. I grew up with my parents providing many opportunities and requirements for myself and my siblings to spend time outside. During the summer, we spent a lot of time collecting firewood and working on projects. Each child had to do chores and pitch in. There also was an expectation to keep yourself busy, which usually meant riding a bike, playing basketball, hiking through the woods, building forts, running through mud puddles, climbing trees, or playing with friends. Watching TV for hours on end, playing video games for hours, or even staring at your smartphone were not possibilities. Often, I would be out in the woods using my imagination to create and play while in nature.
How many of our children today do not play outside or get to experience what is known as nature play? Do they go hiking through the woods or get to let their creativity run wild as they build from found items?
That was when I decided to leave my position as an administrator. That was when I made the decision to act. At that moment, the idea to create a school based in the outdoors became real.
I founded Natural Connections Academy, a nonprofit outdoor private school, with the help of my family. I choose to make the school a nonprofit, so that all money raised would go back into the school and its students. I also wanted to see students outside for as much time as possible within a school day. I wanted to connect children’s learning to the environment.
A Board of Directors was formed, a 501(3)c was applied for, and curriculum was developed. To gain access to experts in the fields of the environment, I contacted several organizations in the area and set up partnerships. I attended trainings to ensure I had the knowledge and resources to teach students about the environment in Northern Idaho. I created trails on my own land, worked with local lumber companies to get access to their timbered land, and started writing grants to assist with the startup costs. I struggled with breaking the mold when setting up a nontraditional school and I feared that I could not help students in the way I had hoped.
I have diligently worked to create a welcoming school for students over the last 8 months. Although I still struggle helping others understand the nontraditional aspects of the school, I have come to a point where I can now enroll students and I stand at the precipice of being able to help students recover from the past inequities they have had with their education!
The cost of this undertaking is immense. The ability to transport students to alternative locations to extend their learning involves acquiring a shuttle bus. To be able to have students complete water analysis, soil testing, growth experiments and data collection requires materials. To provide alternatives to a traditional school building but provide for student’s needs for bathrooms and shelter. At times it seems to be overwhelming, that the cost is too much. But I often remind myself, what is the cost of a child not knowing nature? What dollar amount do we put on children having a successful educational career? When children no longer know about the environment around them, what will that cost the world? When our way of education leaves them behind, what will that cost society?
Together, with your help, I can help students to thrive. I can help them to relearn how to engage in nature. They can experience the outdoors in a way that rekindles their excitement for learning. With your help- we can help children acquire, grow, and understand the environment around them while being successful, confident learners that will be tomorrow’s future.