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Build high the lighthouse, Architect,

In beauty, strength, and might

Day and night its lamp of light

Shall cast its cheerful glow

                        --Richard Chadwick

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—a book and a writer that I fell in love with early in life—I also fell in love with lighthouses.  Perhaps the lure of the lighthouse had something to do with my love affair with Nantucket.  There are three Nantucket lighthouses—Brant Point, Sankaty, and Great Point--and each one lights the path for those trying to find their way to shore.  When I round Brant point on the ferry and I see Brant Point Lighthouse, I know that I am home.  When I leave Nantucket, I always throw a penny in the water when we pass the lighthouse to ensure that I will return.

Throughout my childhood, whenever I went to the shore, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to the lighthouse.  I was fascinated by the structure itself.   Back then, I was allowed to climb the stairs, go to the top, see the lights, and look out the narrow slit of a window at the ocean. Symbolically and metaphorically, the lighthouse meant strength, guidance, and a safe harbor to me as I tried to navigate a childhood marked by instability and turbulence.  It illuminated the dark and offered enlightenment, vision, and hope in a sea of danger, risk, adversity and challenge.

I was therefore fascinated when I discovered that there is an independent Preschool-8 school on the Island known as Nantucket Lighthouse School.  I have been a teacher and administrator for most of my life, and I am always interested in education.  Furthermore, I often wonder what it would be like to raise children on the Island.  What would my options be for them in terms of education?  At a party, I recently met a couple from New York City who decided to move permanently to Nantucket with their nursery school age son.  The deciding factor in their move was education.  They researched the various schools on the Island and found that there were many excellent options for their child.  I hope that, over the course of this winter, I will have the opportunity to tour, explore, understand, and write about each of these schools—from the Nantucket public school to the various independent schools.

In an odd coincidence, I sat next to Charity Benz, one of the trustees of Nantucket Lighthouse School, at a function and managed to garner an invitation to tour the school and to spend some time with Emily Miller, the Head of Nantucket Lighthouse School.  The school is aptly named.  It is truly a school that provides an atmosphere in which teachers are the lighthouses that light the way for students to construct their own deep understanding and transfer that understanding to a variety of contexts.  In this wonderful, progressive school, students are actively engaged in the learning process, and knowledge is constructed through fiction, nonfiction, hands-on projects, scientific experiments, math explorations, field trips, observation, lesson book writing, class discussions, collaboration with on-Island experts, and artistic endeavors in painting, felting, sketching, sculpting, knitting, and weaving. 

The mission of Nantucke Lighthouse School is to call forth in each studen “inherent social, intellectual, and moral wisdom” that will effectively “prepare each child to lead a responsible and joyful life.”  Consequently, students are independent learners who are critical thinkers, problem solvers, and self-confident, engaged, and responsible citizens.  When I attended an elementary class, I saw this in action.  Students were exploring the Wampanoag Indians in order to understand the history and culture of the Island on which they live.  In order to learn about the Wampanoags, they read, wrote, explored family life, mapped, studied weather, and even gardened in the ways that the Wampanoags must have.  They did a variety of  art projects in the ways they might have been done hundreds of years ago on Nantucket, and they integrated math, music, science, and art as well as all the traditional academic subjects into their learning.

I was not surprised, therefore, when I attended a luncheon for Nantucket students who had won a DAR essay contest a few days later and discovered that one of the Nantucket Lighthouse School 7th grade students had not only won first prize for Nantucket but was now our representative at the State level.  A creative but rigorous non-traditional education produces students who can not only think in original and creative ways but who can also transfer that learning into an extraordinary command of all the traditional skills that prepare our children for college and beyond.

Having seen this amazing school—one that I would have been delighted to have sent my three daughters to—I am now excited to see what other educational opportunities there are on the Island.

I welcome your thoughts, ideas, and observations on education on Nantucket.  Please comment on my post, give me ideas about other schools that I should explore, and share you opinions.

This is Pat Jones' first year living full time on Nantucket. After decades of teaching English at the high school and college level, she is now embarking on a new and challenging odyssey. Both retirement and Island life are new and exciting and occasionally daunting.  In this column she will share what it is like to live on Nantucket year round. As a poet, a writer, and a novice visual artist, her metaphor for the journey is “Throwing Paint.”