The Waskowitz Environmental Leadership & Service Program, or WELS, is an alternative high school for sophomores, juniors and seniors in the Highline School District. Through the program, students gain leadership and career-building skills while spending weeks participating in outdoor adventures and leading elementary groups at Camp Waskowitz. The unique program has had incredibly powerful impacts on its students.
Located 30 miles east of Seattle and situated on 370 acres of woods and rivers, sits Camp Waskowitz - an oasis for students within the Highline School District. Beginning as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1947, Waskowitz was acquired by Highline Public Schools in 1975. It has since been home to sixth graders for one week during their school year and is also the core of the WELS program. When you arrive at Waskowitz, you are in the heart of the Pacific Northwest wilderness and just on the cusp of the Cascades. You smell the damp woods, hear the rushing river, and are amid historic wood cabins and campfires. It is here that WELS students are submerged into the alternative outdoor and leadership education they will experience during the three-year program.
One of the foundations of the WELS program is leadership, and each student spends six weeks at camp as a counselor to 10-12 visiting elementary students. During the five-day experience, they are responsible for the physical and emotional safety of their sixth grade campers 24 hours day and for leading them through the entire experience. They are teaching environmental science lessons, running hands-on games, leading hikes and managing a daily schedule of activities. For many of the sixth graders, it’s their first time being away from home so the leaders are also providing emotional support and encouragement.
"We’re just there to be the best leaders we can be for the kids,” explains Daniel, a junior who has overseen six groups of campers since beginning at WELS. One of the hardest parts of the experience is keeping the positive energy up for the kids during their stay at Waskowitz. Between all the activities, lessons, plus a lack of a sleep, it can easily bring the WELS students' energy down, but they stay positive and upbeat for the kids. This is the most important part for Daniel: “I always ask if they enjoyed what I taught, it’s cool to have that feeling that the kids had a good time.”
Through intensive and supportive training, WELS students learn what it means to be a role model and to be a good example for the behavior they expect of their campers. Being at Waskowitz offers a unique context where WELS students can explore different responsibilities and are given the space and freedom to try on a new role for themselves. Students are incredibly empowered by the whole experience because the sixth graders look up to them more than they would to any adult. “You’re changing kids’ lives by being there for them and mentoring them,” WELS sophomore Destiny describes, “someone like me changing a sixth grader’s life? I didn’t know I could do that or impact them in such a big way.”
They are also learning educational and leadership skills through ongoing classroom work that they will use during their time at camp. “We try as much as we can to tie everything we do in their academic curriculum to the work that they do at Waskowitz,” explains Bennett, WELS math teacher. For example, Bennett teaches a math class focused on estimation, distances and units that his students can utilize when they read maps and navigate trails with their campers. WELS students also teach everything they learn in their environmental class to the kids as part of the science education focus at Waskowitz. “Everything they are learning at WELS sets them up to be strong leaders at camp” says Bennett.
In addition to leadership and community, environmental education is one of the backbones of the WELS program. The curriculum pulls heavily from Outward Bound, an expeditionary learning model that focuses on learning through experience, adventure and a supportive environment. In conjunction with their classroom work, the students participate in numerous outdoor adventures throughout the school year including hiking, snowshoeing, rock-climbing and backpacking. These activities place students in intense and vulnerable situations with each other and allow for some serious community building. Cellphones are prohibited on these trips, creating a rare and positive disconnect for students who are normally connected 24 hours a day.
It’s pretty amazing that a program like WELS exists in a public school district, and it’s because Highline cares about its students in an intentional way. The district is located south of Seattle in a particularly racially, culturally and economically diverse area. Across the district, students speak over 90 different languages and more than 70% of the families are living below the poverty line. As part of a new strategic plan, the entire district has come together to promise a focused approach for each student’s strengths, needs and successful graduation. The plan emphasizes bold goals for students and sets high expectations for all 45 schools. WELS takes these goals seriously and due to their small size and focused attention, the faculty can address each student on an individual basis.
Many students who enter the WELS program are failing in the traditional high school system. One of the challenges the faculty encounter is balancing the wide spectrum of students in such a small environment. “Students in our program come from a variety of backgrounds and a whole range of socioeconomic statuses” Tim, WELS social studies teacher, explains, “within that, there’s also a wide range of family situations.” Students face a variety of issues such as losing family members, domestic violence, anger issues, insufficient food at home, lack of sleep due to crashing on couches or having to babysit siblings during the school day so their parents can work. A number of students have also experienced some kind of trauma, from moving schools at the wrong time to abuse.
With the unique structure at WELS, the faculty is able to navigate these issues through intentional community building and a student-centered curriculum. One of the most impactful elements of the school day is a morning check-in with all students and staff to keep updated with their lives and feelings on that particular day. A lot comes out of these check-ins including trust and community building. “Check-ins offer up chances to be vulnerable and empathetic with each other,” describes Bennett, “it builds those interpersonal skills that are so important to be successful in life.” The check-ins are just one of many opportunities that small class sizes and focused attention provide.
A common theme among students and faculty is that they all genuinely enjoy being at WELS. “It’s a cool environment, I like coming here and I like being here” says Daniel. One of his favorite parts about WELS is how hands-on the staff is: “all of our teachers are here to help us out. We get one-on-one time and they help us understand our work better.” Research shows that lower class sizes are directly linked to higher graduation rates and better test scores, among other positive educational benefits. The entire program has only 42 students.
For Destiny, WELS has changed her entire attitude about school and made her truly enjoy coming to class every day. “I am a completely different person from last year. I have a better outlook on life and I feel like I’ve found genuine happiness that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. And I don’t think I would have found it without WELS.” Teachers say her attendance has increased, she has better communication skills and her overall professionalism is noticeably improved. Destiny has also changed who she associates and hangs out with as she realized they were not influencing her in a positive way. WELS students spend a lot of time thinking about long-term goals and are coached on how to recognize and put themselves in situations that will lead to success. Chances are if you were to ask any of the students what kind of goals they have around their own success, they would give you a really thoughtful response.
WELS exists in a time where public school systems are receiving serious criticism and funding is taking a major hit. While test scores and standards are the traditional method for measuring success, WELS offers a fresh look at how an alternative education structure can create positive results for its students. Instead of focusing on passing a standardized test, the program is equipping students with practical life skills - such as leadership and effective communication - that they are able to apply after graduation. WELS is helping students to identify their own personal goals and take steps to achieve them. Taking teenagers out of their high school, away from their friends and everything they know, and throwing them into a leadership-intensive program where they spend most of their time outdoors and disconnected from the world might seem crazy. But WELS is succeeding, and it is changing its students for the better.