Feeling happy and peaceful. Feeling at home and part of something bigger than yourself. Feeling connected to others. For nearly forty years, the Apostle Islands School has been creating opportunities for middle schoolers to have these feelings, opportunities to see and feel and touch for themselves the wonders of the world that surrounds them. And they love it, rejoice in it. It is one of the best experiences they have ever had.
The origin of the Apostle Islands School can be traced to 1985. Terry Daulton explains in a thesis titled “Master Plan for the Apostle Islands Outdoor Education School” that Northland College students approached staff of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute looking for help developing “an in-depth environmental education teacher training program.” In the same year, an Institute survey of local school principals and superintendents showed that they were concerned about how few students had direct experience of the Apostle Islands. As Daulton summarized, “very few of the area’s students, or even their parents, have ever had the opportunity to explore Lake Superior beyond the mainland. . . .”
In response to these intersecting needs and concerns, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute partnered with the National Park Service to develop the “Apostle Islands Outdoor Education School.” The school was field tested in May of 1986 and 1987 and served more than 200 students from schools in Washburn, Bayfield, Ashland, Benoit, Cable, and Drummond.
By 1989, the fourth year of the school’s operation, a formal agreement of co-administration had been developed between the Institute, Northland College’s outdoor education program, and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Erica Peterson, the Institute’s program lead for 1989, captured highlights of the school in her end-of-year report, noting that 144 students had been served by the school, that symbiosis had been the educational theme, that transportation had been provided by the Island Princess, that activities had taken place at the Presque Isle campground on Stockton Island and at the Manitou Fish Camp, that a squall on May 25 had done “extensive damage” to the students’ tents, and that there had been “no illness or injuries other than minor bruises and upset stomachs.”
Since these early years of the Apostle Islands School, generations of regional youth have had an opportunity to attend school on an island. Their lessons have focused on the geography of the islands, phenology, fish and fishing, lighthouses and their keepers, the national park system, outdoor living skills, interpersonal relationships, and both the tangible and intangible values of public lands and wild places. For many students, these lessons and the experiences that accompany them have been, as a long-time program coordinator Clayton Russell has observed, “the seeds which later blossom into a greater interest in the natural word.”
Apostle Islands School has also provided many generations of Northland College students with an opportunity to hone their skills as outdoor and environmental educators. And, it has given them opportunities to experience first-hand the rewards of working with younger students. As one recent Northland student wrote after Island School, “Middle schoolers are wild! Wildly creative, important and misunderstood. . . . Although sometimes it takes digging to get past the nervousness about spiders and crushes, . . . you may find yourself learning things about the world that you never knew.”
The value of the Apostle Islands School has been affirmed by many over the years, and the program has been fortunate to have the support of numerous individuals and organizations. The support of parents, the dedication of teachers, the partnership with the National Park Service, and grants from Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, in particular, have allowed the school to persist well into its fourth decade.
As Katherine Jenkins, the Institute’s current coordinator for the program, has observed, the students of Island School “tell a story of peace and relaxation, of connecting to nature, of a joy in departing from technology for a little while, of pleasure in getting to socialize with friends, of a concern and hope for the future.”