A UNIQUE PLACE
In our search for new and interesting places to explore during a Bahamian cruise, we were lucky to find The Island School. It is a unique destination—something you won't find anywhere else in the world nested on the southwestern shores of Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas.
The sprawling campus of brightly painted low buildings centers around a courtyard interlaced with walking paths of crushed oysters bordered by harvested conch shells. My wife and I wandered in late one day to find students, dressed in shorts and tee shirts, finishing up their day preparing for the communal evening meal.
Inquiring at the administration office we were warmly welcomed to come back to spend a day on campus, mingle among students and staff, audit classes and, if we were up for it, observe a few of the scientific projects taking place in the more remote reaches of the campus.
As strange as it may sound this visit became the highpoint of this Bahamas cruise with the school and students so impressive to us that to this day we continue supporting them. Beware, however, if you visit be ready to have your mind expanded beyond your wildest expectations of what you thought a school could possibly offer.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
The founders of The Island School had a vision for a place of learning unlike any other. In a paradigm shift from the usual way high school students are educated here they are not so much taught but more guided to an understanding of how to learn.
One hundred percent of students who attend The Island School go on to college, validating this idea and way of teaching. Not resting on these laurels the administration set a second goal of building a campus that lives harmoniously with nature. This is implemented through conscientious efforts to continuously improve the environmental impacts the campus has on the surrounding pristine ecosystem. These dual mandates are omnipresent directly impacting how the student body spends their life on campus. Boarding on site they live the mission statement of “...sense of place, sustainability and community.”
REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE
Presented with an opportunity to go beyond institutional learning, students are immersed in a multi-cultural exchange of ideas encouraging independent thinking resulting in synergies of thought. The academics are impressive and varied, focusing on sustainability within a geographic area by expanding existing technologies or developing new ones to reduce negative environmental impacts while improving standards of living.
Each student's ingenuity is challenged to conceive, develop and implement their own scientific experiments, fully explain their goals, how they integrate and apply to the school’s mission and what value they will add to the world’s environments and economies. We saw this in a multitude of projects underway or planned. When the school wanted to reduce sewage outflow impact but lacked the knowledge to do so, staff directed students to research current available technologies.
Their solution culminated in the building of a bio-digester that takes the sewage, treats it with anaerobic bacteria purifying the affluent water for discharge into an artificial wetland for reprocessing into fertilizers for animal feed crops. Other longterm research programs are handed down to successive classes. The aquaculture research farm and cobia fish cage project is focusing, over the next few years, on how to reduce excessive nutrients produced from cages and hatcheries, a problem facing all the world's fisheries. When was the last time our schools challenged our children with such meaningful real-world projects? All this was coming from teenagers!
My mind was expanded beyond the narrow range it normally holds of young adults. My wife and I were astounded by the level of congeniality, enthusiasm and diversity surrounding us.
SOUND MIND AND BODY
Classes are “place based and experiential,” which translates into every class having a field component more recognizable as university field courses than standard high school fare. Designed to create producers of knowledge rather than consumers of it, the cutting edge methods actually teach the students how to learn.
Manifested, it would not be unusual to find the mathematics class lying flat on their bellies atop a sand bar investigating the concept of horizons. Walking through the campus we came across students conducting primary scientific research. They explained that the class directive was to analyze the sometimes baffling and contrary results obtained and that later they would be challenged to form well-supported, reasonable explanations for the outcomes witnessed.
With this in mind we were not surprised to find the science class standing knee-deep in a mangrove wetland recording observations for future discussions. When we audited the class a passionate debate broke out with each student clearly explaining their point of view, not parroting something from cliff notes.
I imagined this was how the great minds throughout civilization learned and how tomorrow’s leaders will be built. It is all part of what the school founders call “Leadership affecting change.” Never ignoring other important aspects of the human condition the curriculum includes many outdoor activities that produce solid bodies and sound minds.
Students plan and lead wilderness, kayaking and camping expeditions. It seemed everyone was signed up for or being certified to go on the scientific observational scuba dives of the surrounding reefs. Each morning before classes start the entire student body goes for a run, which includes swimming the canals bisecting the campus.
The workout eventually ends in a group exercise in the courtyard before everyone is released for breakfast. These activities are designed to build self-confidence, respect for all people, teamwork and leadership while fostering growth through challenge.
Life on campus is not all glamorous. The students equally share a myriad of duties and responsibilities. Each is given an opportunity to serve others with the goal to teach respect, dependability and humility while broadening one’s insight. Duties include administration, housekeeping, food harvesting and preparation, even the humble job of cleaning the toilets is shared by all.
It is a lesson about walking in another’s shoes and taking personal responsibility. Students come away with a desire to continue the learning process throughout their lives. To put it in the words of one eager student, “It is a positive life-changing experience of lessons learned.”
A BALANCED APPROACH
One of the school’s core philosophies is the belief that human and nature's needs are one in the same requiring a balanced approach. They seek knowledge to improve our lives through the use of current technologies while overcoming yesterday’s limitations.
The school rejects the notion of going back to being primitives opting instead to focus on what is really needed to live harmoniously in nature without unduly sacrificing lifestyle. This is a unique approach to living and environmental preservation in an age of extremism.
I applaud the vision The Island School has of not seeing the glass half full or half empty but as an ocean of possibilities. I hope all boaters will recognize their vision's potential to bring back the best to our lives while restoring some of what our planet has lost.
Almost everyone can think of at least one thing that is no more because of negative human impact. Personally, I miss the pristine coral reefs I dove on as a teenager and the clean, clear water of many lakes and rivers I once cruised upon and would love to see them restored.
I’m disgusted when I see mounds of plastic trash and cigarette butts washed upon the sandy beaches envisioning the ignorant souls who carelessly tossed them. I would never give up boating and I don’t believe my passion for it is responsible for much of the degradation found in nature but in the best principles of The Island School I will balance the damage my recreation does by doing all I can to ensure that I keep the environment as clean or cleaner than how I found it.
I do not consider this a hardship because on a broader scale it is never a sacrifice to do what is necessary to promote a stable and healthy ecosystem. Isn't a desire to immerse ourselves in pristine nature one of the driving forces common among all boaters that keeps us cruising the waters?
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
I am not smart enough to come up with the next technological breakthrough that will restore our planet to the glory days, but perhaps one of the students challenged in this little corner of Eleuthera by an up-and-coming institution with a vision for the future and a unique way of bringing young people from around the world together just might.
As it was nicely put by one of the staff members at the school, “Everyone that comes here has a sense of awe at what goes on here.” An understatement if there ever was one. The Island School is a place my wife and I feel privileged to have visited and our time there was an experience we will never forget. If you’re ever visiting the island of Eleuthera, The Island School is not to be missed.