History of IslandWood

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The Idea

Inspiration for IslandWood came from the land itself, and the knowledge that half of Seattle School District children did not receive overnight outdoor education programs.

Paul and Debbi Brainerd learned in 1997 that over a thousand acres of land were being sold on the south end of Bainbridge Island. Debbi proposed the idea of a children's outdoor education center to teach children about the natural and cultural history of the Puget Sound region.

The Need

Debbi conducted a six-month feasibility study with Puget Sound teachers and Washington State educational administrators that confirmed the need for such a facility. It was learned that Washington State declared environmental education mandatory in 1990 -- yet no funding for teacher training, student programs, or facilities was ever allocated. Moreover, the feasibility study showed that roughly half of the children from economically challenged communities in Seattle had never participated in a residential outdoor education program -- or spent time outside the city.

In 1998, an educational study called Closing the Achievement Gap was released that became the basis for IslandWood's educational vision and philosophy. This study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust examined models of learning in children and showed that by taking children outside the classroom, by focusing on actively doing rather than reading or being lectured to, children's academic performance goes up in every discipline. In math and science scores went up by over 90%, and discipline problems decreased while attendance increased. This research inspired our desire for IslandWood to become a model for how all learning should happen.

Learning from Others

At the end of 1998, 255 acres of land were purchased by the Brainerds from Port Blakely Tree Farms and donated to the new nonprofit now known as IslandWood. The planning then began in earnest as to the best way to create an educational center that could be a "magical place for kids."

Two years of research followed, with community meetings involving over 2,500 people. Focus groups conducted with teachers, scientists, artists, technologists and cultural historians supported expanding educational programs to include weekend adult and family programs. Additionally, teachers expressed a strong need for professional development opportunities in art, science and technology.

Debbi made visits to over 25 other outdoor education facilities in the United States. Visiting exemplary programs such as the Teton Science School in WY, Wolf Ridge in MN and Frost Valley in NY, provided a collective best practices model around facility design and program. Attending a Graduate Program Conference at the Teton Science School, discussions began with the University of Washington that confirmed a decision to offer a 10- month residential graduate program at IslandWood. Using the model of the research Closing the Achievement Gap, the graduate curriculum would focus on giving future educators the skills they needed to reach more children through an experiential, hands-on model of learning.

Scientists and other educators were then brought to the property to discern what educational "stories" could be taught from the land. Biologists were thrilled by the property's rich variety of ecosystems: 62 acres of wetlands, a bog, second growth forest, a stream, and access to a marine estuary in Blakely Harbor adjacent to the property. Cultural historians were excited by the stories of the largest mill in the world that once operated in Blakely Harbor, as well as the history of the Suquamish tribe who had used this land for many years before the arrival of the white settlers.

The Vision Becomes Reality

Mithun architects and The Berger Partnership designed the educational structures, trail systems and outdoor field structures with the help of kids. University of Washington landscape architecture students worked with over 250 children in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades in design charrettes, to learn what their ideals would be for learning in the natural world. The children's ideas focused on adventure-based learning, with their design ideas generating specifics like a floating classroom, suspension bridge, forest canopy structure and several tree houses.

Fund raising began in 1999. The total project cost was $52 million: $5 million to acquire the land, $32 million for construction and site infrastructure, $10 million for an operations endowment, and $5 million to establish a scholarship endowment for children from underserved communities. The Brainerds provided half of the campaign goal, and the additional $26 million was raised from the community. The campaign was successfully completed in 2005.

The official groundbreaking for the center was held in the summer of 2000. With construction nearly completed in spring 2002, pilot programs were conducted to test the four-day program for 4th and 5th graders. The teachers and kids who attended provided reviews about the quality of the educational experience, with comments like "this isn't a camp it's a school with real teachers" and "this experience wasn't about recreation it was about learning - only they made it fun!"

IslandWood Timeline

IslandWood Timeline.png


Kids, adults, families, and teachers are now currently learning from the land, and the team of IslandWood faculty and staff is making what once was a vision come to life!

IslandWood's dedication to the community through lifelong learning, education by hands-on learning, and its commitment to stewardship shows what can happen when people work together.

Today IslandWood targets approximately two-thirds of its students from schools on free and reduced lunch programs for its School Overnight Program. Proceeds from other IslandWood programs and special events help support these efforts by providing scholarships for those who need financial assistance. It is our goal to allow all children to be able to have an IslandWood experience.

Moving into its ninth year of operation, IslandWood continues to expand its reach into the community. Here are a few highlights:

  • Over 4,000 school children from over seventy schools in the Puget Sound area participated in IslandWood programs
  • Over 5,000 community members visited the campus through our community events, conferences and leadership programs
  • Over 50,000 households in the Puget Sound area learned valuable lessons in stewardship by viewing our cultural history films
  • Over 6,000 hours of service to IslandWood were provided by our growing base of docents and volunteers
  • Over 200 teachers participated in professional development programs at IslandWood to increase their effectiveness in the classroom