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Marshall School expands primary grades with nature-based program

The Forest School in Duluth will include 4-year-olds and K-4. Marshall is currently a private school for grades 4-12.

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Matt Whittaker, principal of the planned The Forest School at Marshall in Duluth, watch as sixth graders Emma Adamski, from left, Ella Aebly and Brooke Tonkin test their boat and its cargo on Brewery Creek as part of a science/engineering lesson Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Marshall School is expanding its grades down to 4-year-olds by creating The Forest School, a nature-based primary school. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Marshall School in Duluth is expanding its grades in 2022-23 by adding a nature-based primary school.

The Forest School will cater to 4-year-olds and kindergarten through fourth grade. Marshall is currently a fourth grade through 12th grade private school.

Head of School Jamie Steckart started at Marshall in July and spent his first 30 days talking to staff, students and parents. Steckart said the idea of expanding its primary school has been talked about for a while, and when staff members brought it to his attention he decided it was something that could be easily done.

“For me, coming on board, it was always odd that the school took kids in the fourth grade. It’s just not a transition year for kids,” Steckart said.

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Marshall School sixth graders Addison LaFave, left, and Eli Maki assemble a boat from materials found along Brewery Creek on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

He said adding The Forest School will not require a large capital investment as the school building has room to add the grades.

Matt Whittaker has been a teacher at Marshall for 16 years and will take over as principal. He said his wife operates a nature-based preschool out of their home and he was impressed with how much the students learned and grew during their time with her. He wants to bring that type of education to Marshall.

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“There has been a growing population of families that are very interested in nature preschools,” Whittaker said. “But there is a void in our community with the next steps for those families that found a lot of value in the practices that occur at the nature preschools. So we have this opportunity to create a space where we continue those foundations of learning.”
Marshall has a 40-acre campus with a mountain biking trail maintained by Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores, a cross-country trail for skiing and running and a creek that winds through campus.

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Marshall School sixth graders Emma Adamski, from left, Ella Aebly, and Brooke Tonkin work on the cargo container that will ride on their boat Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Sixth graders were doing a lesson by the creek Wednesday. Their teacher, Dave Johnson, said they had to create a raft using materials they found outside as well as rubber bands and strings to float a film container filled with rocks down part of the stream.

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The students, in groups of two, built a raft and then tested it in the stream until they were able to get it to float the film container down the creek without getting wet. A group of three girls who were the first to complete this task jumped and yelled in excitement when they finally figured it out.

“There’s been a lot of research in the last 10 years that shows the type of education that happens outdoors are the kinds of building blocks that we need for students to be very academically successful,” Whittaker said.

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Matt Whittaker, left, principal of the planned The Forest School at Marshall, listens as Marshall Head of School Jamie Steckart talks about the nature-based primary school Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

He said last school year the school tried to have the students spend as much time as possible outside due to the pandemic, and he saw something great.

“One of the things I’ve found as I was watching them outside even as we’re having lunch sitting outside on the bleachers, you would think it’s sort of just a blank time, but the kids are looking around them and they're finding little twigs and trees and wandering,” Whittaker said. “It was amazing how much learning was happening in a space that in my mind was sort of a dead learning time.”

Learning and pricing

The 4-year-old students will start next year with half-day sessions. Steckart said they might increase to a full day if needed, but right now they are sticking with half-days. The students in K-4 will be organized in multigrade learning pods and 40% or more of educational times will be spent outdoors.

Whittaker said the benefits of mixed-age groups will allow them to be flexible and to group the students a little more by viability and knowledge. For example, he said, a student might be a really strong reader but struggling with math, so being able to mix and match those pieces will allow them to maximize their classroom time.

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Brewery Creek flows through the 40 acres of woods Marshall School has on its campus. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Additionally, when kids are exploring their own learning with competent guides beside them, asking the right questions and helping to push them further, that’s when we’re really developing the skills that we want to see in our middle and high school students,” Whittaker said.

The Forest School’s tuition is about 50% less than Marshall’s tuition. It will cost $5,987 for 4-year-olds and $9,743 for K-4. Income-based pricing , also known as “community-centered” pricing, will also be available for this program as it is with Marshall’s other grades.

The Forest School at Marshall School is holding an open house Nov. 6 from noon to 1 p.m.

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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