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Highline Public Schools
15675 Ambaum Blvd. SW Burien, WA 98166

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Waskowitz Environmental Leadership Service (WELS)
440 South 186th Street Burien, WA 98148

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Waskowitz Brings Virtual Campfire to Students

60 High School Students Find Connection & Inspiration at Weekend Leadership Conference

Screenshot of campfire used for virtual Waskowitz event

Nearly 60 high school students across Highline Public Schools found connection and inspiration around a virtual campfire on a dark December weekend. 

State Representative Jesse Johnson, a former Highline Public Schools staff member, kicked off the weekend with a keynote address. Saturday evening featured a virtual escape room and campfire. On Saturday and Sunday, students dug into their own personalities and identities, discussed equity and inclusion, and explored their leadership potential.

“It was a powerful and moving end of a not-so-normal fall at Camp Waskowitz,” Johnny Gannaw, assistant director of Waskowitz programs, says. 

On the event survey, students responded:

  • “I had a really good time and met some amazing people. I definitely want to look into other Waskowitz leadership opportunities in the future.”

  • “I really enjoyed the energy that my core group was providing. I felt a sense of calmness and just overall friendly energy.”

  • “I think for the circumstances we had (virtual), it went super good! It’s obviously different but I enjoyed it! People had their cameras on, and it always reminds me of having a family because everyone is so supportive and sweet.”

Traditional Waskowitz Advanced Leadership Institute (WALI) Week

During any other year, the Waskowitz Advanced Leadership Institute (WALI) is an intensive week at camp for all students enrolled in the 10th/11th grade year-long program known as Waskowitz Environmental Leadership Service (WELS). The traditional WALI experience week helps prepare high school students to be cabin leaders at Waskowitz Outdoor School for two weeks in the fall and three weeks in the spring.

Virtual WALI Weekend

Screenshot of Rep. Jesse Johnson keynote at Waskowitz Advanced Leadership Institute virtual weekend Dec. 2020.

This year, the re-purposed, virtual WALI weekend took a different approach to support the social-emotional wellbeing of Highline students during a time of social distancing. WELS contacted counselors and principals to open up the program to high school students districtwide.  

Students selected from identity-themed core groups, where they met in Zoom breakout rooms during the weekend to discuss leadership topics, reflect on their leadership capacities, and create a community with their peers across the district. 

Group sessions were led by Waskowitz leadership staff and AmeriCorps success coaches:

  • Female Identity Group
  • LGBTQ+ & Ally Identity Group
  • First Generation/Immigrant Identity Group
  • Male Identity Group
  • BIPOC Identity Group

Students participated in three of six workshops offered by Waskowitz outdoor educators and WELS teachers:

  • Finding Your Why
  • Gender & Leadership
  • Social Media for Social Action
  • Envisioning Tomorrow
  • Standing Up for Equity & Inclusion
  • Treat Yo’ Self
  • The Lion & The Wolf
"The Great Waskowitz Escape Room!!" image from screenshot with clock, from virtual event 2020

Whole group events offered during the weekend:

  • State Representative Jesse Johnson kicked off the weekend with a keynote address.
  • A fun evening program included a virtual escape room and campfire.
  • Closing keynote given by Glacier Middle School Reengagement Specialist Alane Gacad.

Creating a Virtual Camp Waskowitz

Despite physical limitations this year due to COVID-19, Waskowitz Outdoor Education Center staff have been busier than ever, filling the gaps created by the loss of in-person and outdoor experiences. In any other year, sixth-grade students would have attended a multi-day camp, students in fourth grade would have enjoyed a living history program, and ninth-grade students would have participated in a Freshman Success program at camp.

Outdoor education teachers and staff led the effort to create virtual camp, leadership and living history experiences for students in Highine in partnership with schools and teachers.

“We pivoted 180 degrees for us—from outdoor to virtual learning experiences to fill gaps for students this year.”

“We pivoted 180 degrees for us—from outdoor to virtual learning experiences to fill gaps for students this year,” says Roberta McFarland, director and principal of outdoor environmental education for Waskowitz Outdoor Programs.

“We are anxious to return to our roots, when it is possible, with outdoor education as the theme and foundation for a unique set of learning programs and experiences that touch every Highline student in their journey through our schools. In the meantime, we will continue to pour our hearts into supporting Highline students and staff with innovative virtual learning experiences.”

WELS is Enrolling

Starting Spring 2021, WELS has enrollment openings in its innovative, project-based program for students currently in grades 10-11. Ninth grade students also are invited to learn about WELS in this informational video and to enroll for the 2021-22 school year. WELS offers an interdisciplinary, small learning community with a theme of environmental leadership and service. Please visit the WELS Admissions page for more information.

History of Outdoor and Environmental Education in Highline

In Highline, the first seeds for the concepts of outdoor learning, environmental leadership education and learning by doing (now called project-based learning) were planted in 1939 when Carl Jensen joined Highline staff and helped launch outdoor experiences at various locations. In 1953, Jensen became superintendent. Camp Waskowitz was purchased in 1957.