PUYALLUP — In the wetlands just south of the Puyallup River, five students and a teacher crowded around a picnic table picking over tubs of rocks, sand and cotton balls on a spring day. Cool wind blew through the reed canary grass. Glass beakers clinked.
They were steps away from Chief Leschi Schools buildings on the Puyallup Tribe of Indians reservation. As part of their environmental science class, high school juniors and seniors were building a natural filtration system to clear out duckweed, prevalent in the wetlands they are working to restore.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education named Chief Leschi a Green Ribbon School for environmental sustainability work and education. Only one other Washington school — Pioneer Elementary in Gig Harbor — received the recognition, which was awarded to 26 schools nationwide.
The award highlights two schools doing innovative environmental work — and also puts a spotlight on how these schools take a very different approach to learning.
“Native people have always been doing this work. It’s just about bringing the awareness and the enlightenment to that next generation about our connection with the Mother Earth,” said Binah McCloud, Chief Leschi Schools’ director of student success and a member of the Puyallup Tribe. “We are really excited to bring it to this point. This is who we are. Working the earth.”
The award will help fund a trip to Washington, D.C., for a school representative to receive the award, but mainly it helps the school gain credibility when it comes to applying for grants for environmental work.
It also builds momentum for other schools looking to adopt similar practices, said John Hellwich, assistant superintendent of elementary education at Peninsula School District, home to Pioneer Elementary.
Months before the pandemic shuttered school buildings, Chief Leschi Schools began thinking differently about the best way to help its students be successful. The school launched five career “pathways” for students, 97% of whom are Indigenous learners. The pre-K-12 school has just under 700 students.
Each pathway has a strong tie to the tribal culture. Students on the culinary path learn how to cook using Indigenous plants grown in their campus garden. Those on the natural resources path learn Native knowledge about taking care of an overgrown wetland.
Students begin hands-on work in the ninth grade, “and then they are just on fire,” McCloud said. “Not all of our kids are head to book to pencil.”
Shifting to hands-on work, and learning about career possibilities like becoming a fisherman or a diver, “helps them thrive.”
In just four years, the school’s graduation rate has increased from 53% to 92%. In the past two years — while enrollments are plummeting in schools across the nation — its enrollment has grown by 40 students.
School leaders attribute their success to the fact that students identify culturally with the life and workplace skills they are learning.
McCloud said Puyallup members feel so strongly bound to the tribe that “we don’t really leave our community. We don’t travel cross-country. And if we do go off to college or relocate someplace, we always find our way home.”
From working for the Puyallup Tribal Communications team to the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority, or returning to become a teacher, the five pathways offer opportunities for students to enter a tribal entity after they graduate.
Katerie Gouley, 17, is a junior on the education pathway. She knows she wants to be a culture teacher at Chief Leschi Schools or at another area tribal school.
“It seems to be the best thing I’m good at,” Gouley says about leading the community circle where students and staff sing and drum and dance every Monday and Friday morning.
“The kids see themselves in their education here,” said Jeannine Medvedich, chief academic officer. “It’s really clear that culture is the heart of our school and culture opens up a space for everything else.”
Running five career and technical pathways is financially difficult, said Medvedich, because the paths aren’t state-funded until classes are fully enrolled. The school has used small grants to help with funding.
Chief Leschi is a public school with two funding sources, said Marc Brouillet, the school’s superintendent. It receives money through the Bureau of Indian Education’s tribally controlled school grants and also through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s tribal-compact school designation.
The tribe has always had run its own school, said McCloud. Before it became a tribal compact school in 2016-17, the school was part of the Puyallup School District.
Students following the culinary pathway spend a lot of time in the school’s kitchen. One morning in early May, butter chicken warmed on the stovetop. The smell wafted out into the hallways.
The school’s kitchen is being remodeled to more closely resemble a commercial kitchen so that students can learn in a restaurant-style space.
In the garden, four beds are bursting with garlic, sage, chives, rosemary and strawberries.
“When the kids see something come to life, they gasp,” McCloud said.
The goal is to teach kids sustainability so they know how to survive even if modern food systems go away, said Carl Lorton, a culinary teacher at the school. “Those are the traditional ways we want to teach them,” Lorton said.
Many of the students take plants home and make medicines. One class is harvesting willow bark to make one of the original forms of aspirin.
“We didn’t have to go get an architect degree to build our log houses, or to know when the salmon ran, or to know how to read the water,” McCloud said. “We are trying to get the students to identify that science is a big part of who we are, math is a big part of who we are.”
That approach helps them become genuinely interested in the learning, McCloud said.
“The ugly history of ours is that boarding school era, the residential schools,” McCloud said. “Education is something we know that we need, but how do we make it interesting and fun for them because we’re coming from historical trauma to this, and trying to turn that around.”
STEAM learning, environmental focus
Twenty miles away in Gig Harbor, Pioneer Elementary, a science, technology, engineering, arts and math magnet school, also received the Green Ribbon award.
The project-based-learning school opened in 2020 and moved into a new, sustainably built building, with high ceilings and tall windows, in January 2021. Between almost all classrooms there are “makerspaces” where students can do projects or take a break outside class.
Classes are combined, meaning two grades are in the same class.
“We feel learning is on a progression anyway. Really, a grade level should not determine where you are,” said Stephanie Strader, the principal of the school.
Multi-age classrooms help build a stronger relationship with the same teacher for two years, and it gives students leadership opportunities, said Hellwich, the assistant superintendent.
Science is the driving force behind how everything in the school is taught. Teachers integrate reading and writing standards like scientists do, by forming hypotheses and then exploring if those hypotheses turn out to be true.
For example, when the superintendent was reading “Where the Wild Things Are” to the kindergarten and first grade class, students noticed the moon was changing shapes in the background while the main character, Max, was on the imaginary island.
Students researched the phases of the moon, then used artwork and writing to create a book about moon phases and how to tell time with them.
The Green Ribbon award judges were impressed with the school’s garden and soon-to-be-built greenhouse, among other environmental projects. Students are learning about pollinators, composting and collecting rainwater. Some are building bat and bird houses to place around the community.
“When you know how hard the staff has worked and how excited some of the kids were about the projects, to see that recognized is great,” Hellwich said.