Suquamish high school offers educational alternative

A new center for Port Gamble S’Klallam youth is on the books for construction in January or February. - Courtesy photo
A new center for Port Gamble S’Klallam youth is on the books for construction in January or February.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

SUQUAMISH — The Suquamish Tribal Education Department is basking in a dream come to fruition.

The dream: educating their own teenagers. The way: more than six years of planning and hard work to launch the “Traditional Learning, Education,” Suquamish High School, on location at the tribe’s education department complex.

On Sept. 3 the doors opened, welcoming its first class of 29 students and four teachers.

“It’s been a dream of mine since I started working in education in the early 70s — having the funding to build our own school,” said Colleen Almojuela, education development administrator. “For me it meets a personal vision.”

The tribal high school has many similarities to North Kitsap or Kingston High in that it’s accredited through the North Kitsap School District, follows the district’s calendar, offers a full slate of classes and provides native students an opportunity to earn six credits a year and graduate on time with a bona fide diploma. Students may participate in all NKSD sports and extra curricular activities.

However, that’s where the similarities end.

Classes — English, world history, computers/technology, geometry, marine and environmental science, study skills, algebra II/triganometry, career choices — are run in two cohorts. Students are divided into freshmen/sophomore and junior/senior groups to attend the morning and afternoon three-hour blocks of instruction.

This structure is all about student needs, as the cohort blocks keep class sizes small, to a maximum of 20, and amps up individual student/teacher time and hands on learning.

“I’m more hands-on, and with less students I’ll get more one-on-one time with the teachers so I’ll get the help I need to graduate,” said senior Christian Lawrence. “The hands on has been more than I expected. They actually sit down and help you through a project. They’re doing a great job of teaching.”

The curriculum subjects are also delivered in a form that differs from traditional styles of teaching, as it incorporates not just Suquamish culture and heritage, but beliefs and experiences from all races and lines of thought throughout the world. It also ties in state standards, grade level expectations, Essential Academic Learning Requirements and the WASL.

“It’s like an honors class, it’s that intense,” said Curriculum Specialist Darlene Peters before using Benjamin Franklin as an example to highlight how it all works. “That requires looking at the 1700 and 1800s, but we’d also look at what was happening with the Suquamish Tribe at that time and other things going on. We want this to be real for the kids. We want this to be worldwide.”

On Thursday the ninth- and 10th-grade morning cohort block learned about migration theories from various scientific points of view — geneticists, archeologists, anthropologists and creation stories.

The 11th- and 12th-grade block spent time learning real-life environmental science, as a Suquamish Fisheries guest speaker gave a presentation on shellfish and salmon habitats, Puget Sound water pollution, sediment runoff, clear-cutting and bacteria. It all cumulated with the dissection of a salmon.

Peters said she wants the “youngsters” to be thinkers, to learn, and to have imaginations, and as a part of that, “critical thinking runs through the curriculum.”

For one student this aligns perfectly with her education needs. Junior Alicia Watson didn’t feel like teachers at NKSD cared, and that’s a major reason why she chose to attend the tribal high school.

“I came here for summer school and learned more in two weeks than I did in my entire history class, all year long,” Watson said. “There’s more opportunities at this school. They make the learning fun. The teachers are here for us.”

The physical learning environment is designed so students rely on each other for social, emotional and academic support. The classrooms are open with large round tables, with the students sitting in a casual group setting. The block classes also foster students supporting each other.

And just like the dream of a tribal high school coming true, the hopes of student collaboration have also come to fruition.

“Everybody is here to help each other out,” Watson said. “There’s a trust factor here, it’s like we’re a family.”

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