October 3, 2023

Learning Outside the Box

Unique school locations can make for a well-rounded education
By Al Parker | Aug. 27, 2022

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” 

That’s what Mark Twain said, at least. Perhaps he understood that not all education has to take place in a typical brick-and-mortar school building in a residential neighborhood. Several northern Michigan schools have had the same thought, and despite their non-traditional locations and creative curriculums, they’re doing a great job of training young minds. 

Beaver Island Community School

Location: Beaver Island

Student Enrollment: 53

Education on Beaver Island dates back to the 1830s, when Bishop Baraga appointed Dennis Harrington to teach on the island. There’s been a public school at the current location of the Beaver Island Community School since the early 1900s. “Due to its isolation—35 miles from our mainland port city of Charlevoix—and the importance of education, Beaver Island’s residents have long supported their community school and view the school as a point of pride,” says BICS Superintendent-Principal Wil Cwikiel. 

Perhaps because it’s the only school game in town, BICS is important to the fabric of the island community. They put their students first, too. “With 53 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, we are able to individualize instruction and build meaningful relationships with our students,” explains Cwikiel. “Our teachers do a nice job of integrating Beaver Island’s human and natural history into their lessons, and we take pride in long-standing traditions that connect the school to the community.” 

Despite the island location, BICS students have the same opportunities as students in larger schools, such as involvement in athletics and extracurricular activities. And staffing isn’t as difficult as one would think—it seems plenty of folks are happy to commit to island life. 

“We are very fortunate to have a cadre of excellent teachers and staff who are committed to providing a high-quality education to our students,” says Cwikiel. “Beaver Island is a very special place, and thankfully we have wonderful teachers and families who want to be here.” 

Learn more at beaverislandk-12.mi.us-en-US.


Human Nature School 

Location: Grand Traverse Commons, Traverse City

Student Enrollment: 300

While not a “school” in the technical sense, the Human Nature School (HNS) is certainly a powerful place of learning. In 2016, HNS began its outdoor education programs, and since the beginning, one of the most unusual aspects of their classes is that they are held entirely outside… all year round. 

“Being outdoors, through all weather, is an adventure in and of itself and it does require that wilderness survival skills are a key curriculum piece,” explains Co-Executive Director of HNS Kriya Miller. “Our curriculum is place-based and experiential, so we are learning about interacting with and building relationships with all the plants and animals we encounter. Nature is like our textbook.” 

Classes are meant to be hands-on, and the curriculum includes everything from plant identification to off-the-grid living to wildlife tracking, as well as forest stewardship and habitat restoration. 

“HNS is a 501(c)3 with a mission to facilitate deeper connections to nature, community, and self,” says Miller. “We see this as a part of an upstream solution to so many of the mental and physical health challenges we are seeing in our youth and adults alike. And we are not separate from nature—the more we heal ourselves, the more we can heal nature too.”

The school helps students build lifelong relationships with nature, enjoy an increase in physical and mental health and wellness, learn about their own strengths, and create lasting friendships. On the flip side, students are sometimes learning in the cold and wet weather, which doesn’t seem to bother the kids as much as the adults, according to Miller. And those kids just keep coming back.

“We began with 11 students and have slowly and steadily been growing our programs and capacity to ensure we not only expand our reach but grow in depth and quality as well,” says Miller. “We now serve around 300 students per year and are poised to open our own program site on a 140-acre parcel that was donated to HNS.” 

The school has not been actively recruiting students, and most who sign up are returning or have heard about the school through word of mouth. “Once we open our new program site and increase our capacity, we’ll likely be actively advertising and seeking to reach a broader community of fellow nature lovers,” predicts Miller.  

While it’s not hard to find students, it is a bit harder to find teachers, especially since HNS looks for specific “nature connection” training. “I would say it’s difficult to attract the right staff … it’s hard to find folks with the right training for this unusual job,” says Miller.

“That said, we’ve had great outcomes building training pieces into our everyday programs so those that work with us for a while start to really build out the competencies we are aiming to provide. Some of the most gifted staff were actually students themselves for many years!”

Get more info at humannatureschool.org.


The Children’s House Junior High 

Location: Downtown Traverse City

Student Enrollment: 24 

Established in 1984 for preschoolers and kindergarteners, The Children’s House has blossomed in the past three (almost four) decades to reach students ages 3 months to 14 years. In 2015, they began their junior high program, which remains the only independent Montessori junior high in the region. The program prepares students to integrate into a variety of high school settings, including public high school, independent high schools, and charter schools.  

Early this year, the junior high moved to downtown Traverse City in the 101 North Park Building at the corner of Front and Park Streets. This is a first for Traverse City; while some elementary schools (like Central Grade School) are walkable to downtown, this is the first modern school of any kind to be on Front Street in the main stretch of the city.

“Our school is not only downtown itself, but it also is integrated into the community,” says Junior High Guide Treenen Sturman. “We walk everywhere and utilize public spaces and services, such as the library, Clinch Park, TART Trails, and the Open Space. We also are in a position to work closely with different organizations and businesses so students have the opportunity to learn about the variety of roles available and necessary with a community. Ultimately, they are thinking about who they are and how they fit in.”

Although some Montessori programs offer larger class sizes (think 25-35 kids per class), the Children’s House has taken a smaller-scale approach.

“Our program is intentionally small, and enrollment has remained steady at 24 students, on average,” says Head of School Michelle Shane. “Although our Park Street campus could accommodate many more, we do not intend to enroll more than 27-30 students.”  

Part of that approach has to do with finding the perfect student-to-teacher ratio…and getting the perfect people to teach the perfect subjects.

“Our junior high employs a wonderful and dedicated staff,” says Shane. “Special subjects are taught by the teachers who also teach at our Long Lake campus. In addition, we use people in the community as often as possible to work with students in their areas of expertise.”

To schedule a tour of the junior high, call (231) 929-9325 or visit traversechildrenshouse.org.


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