Although the South Whidbey Middle School closed its doors to its former building three years ago, its second life as the South Whidbey Community Center has been providing middle schoolers with a different kind of education.
Middle School Principal James Swanson joined the school district the year the building was closed as the district consolidated its facility usage and placed the seventh and eighth graders at the high school campus, and one year later brought to the staff the idea of an enrichment program for the seventh and eighth graders.
Moving beyond the two sole electives of band and woodshop, the middle school began a twofold program to support students and to offer more choice in electives.
Roughly half of the middle school’s population bus over to the community center every Wednesday for two hours and switch off with the other students each semester.
At the community center, students can choose from a variety of classes, including cooking, art, woodworking, drama, parkour, marimba and more.
Those remaining behind at the school can choose from an expansive list of electives, from boxing to ceramics to a social justice class. There are also intervention classes provided for students struggling in core subjects like math or English.
“It turned into a success,” Swanson said. “People were a little bit apprehensive because it’s different.”
South Whidbey English teacher Mary Bakeman said students are often reluctant to join a community center class they know nothing about, but are able to enjoy something they otherwise may not have chosen for themselves.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for kids to stretch themselves and work with other people outside of the school,” Bakeman said.
Now in its second year, the enrichment program offers nine different classes at the community center. Community partners include Create Space, Backyard Whidbey and Rubatano Center.
Gail LaVassar, executive director for the community center, said each instructor has something unique to offer, and most return semester after semester to help out.
“I think the first time this happened, I don’t think any of us ever thought everybody would want to keep doing it,” she said with a laugh.
Beck Diamond, a yoga instructor from Half Moon Yoga Studio, began her second semester on Wednesday teaching standard poses and the importance of self-confidence to the young adults.
“I really like working with this age group because I think it’s really important to bring self-awareness and bring some light to the way they talk to themselves,” Diamond said.
Her class has a focus on positivity and relaxation. Most of the other classes run two hours, with breaks for lunch, but she splits the time with self-defense instructor Wendi Barker from Tiger Martial Arts.
Seventh grader Cassie Terrell is attending the combo of classes this semester. She said the yoga part has been really calming for her, and the self-defense part has been cool because it is teaching her how to defend herself in dangerous situations.
During a late Wednesday morning, the community center is alive with the sounds of marimba and piano. Students move around the room rapidly in drama, self-defense and parkour. They share a meal of grilled cheese and tomato soup around an immaculately set table with cooking instructors. Others create a collage in art or whittle away at a block of wood in the woodshop.
“It’s great that we have a break from the standard classwork and have a chance to really express ourselves in a different way,” seventh grader Zachary Craven, who is taking the woodworking course this semester, said.
His classmate, Sean Walker, agreed that the enrichment program gives students more variety and more classes that teach life skills.
Swanson said he has seen drastic improvement in kids struggling with behavior. The 2018-2019 school year had 105 noted discipline infractions. Halfway through this school year, there has been only 17 infractions.
Although the enrichment program’s funding is not covered by the middle school, the instructors at the community center receive stipends funded by the Readiness to Learn program.
Swanson said in order for the program to continue, community partners need help. Supplies for the community center classes, such as cooking and woodworking, are costly.
More instructors from the community are also invited to help volunteer. They need not be located in the community center already.
People can also choose to sponsor a class. Community members are invited to tour the classes and see the enrichment program in action.