From schoolhouses to school districts

Exploring Blakely Island’s schoolhouse, education opportunities in San Juan Islands

Scroll through this gallery to see photos of the inside of the Blakely Island schoolhouse

Brief History of the Blakely Island Schoolhouse:

A small boat rocks on the clear, cold waters of the Salish Sea. Inside, a wife and husband lookout to the forest-covered island ahead, hoping to capitalize on the growing novelty of the logging industry. Here, they will create a family, build their home and with others establish a community that will remain on Blakely Island for generations.  

In 2024, Blakely Island and the Seattle Pacific University Field Station may appear to tell a single educational story – college students traveling to a remote laboratory to engage in hands-on, practical research and collaboration. But the history of learning started with some of the island’s first homesteaders.

Bruce Congdon, professor emeritus of biology and former director of the Blakely Island Field Station from 1995 to 2002, believes that while managing, teaching and investigating the island, he discovered objects of the island’s hidden history, including the Blakely Island schoolhouse.

“I found a car out there that had been abandoned with trees growing out of the windows. It was just decrepit. I never saw it again, but it hid amongst the trees,” Congdon said. “Items like these help us understand who lived here first and what was most important to them. The schoolhouse is one of the few things spared from being overtaken by the trees and decay.”

Harrison Coffelt built the schoolhouse and it began operations in 1889 to serve the children of loggers.

“When you see those big, old stumps with that notch in them, it means that tree was felled during the period of the first homesteaders. They had to use that notch to help them cut down the trees to haul down to the Thatcher Bay,” Congdon said. “The schoolhouse was built for that population and was meant to serve them and their families as they worked those long hours.”

The exterior of the refurbished schoolhouse on a sunny day, surrounded by thick trees and green grass (Courtesy of Peg Achterman).

The first teacher at the schoolhouse was Richard Straub, who taught a classroom of about 15 students. The children typically enrolled in the school ranged from about one year to around elementary school age. When students reached high school, they had to travel to nearby islands to continue their education.

The school served the children for 61 years before closing in 1950. A teacher identified as S. Newcome taught the last class, with only four children enrolled, ages one, two and four. After the school’s closure, preschoolers and elementary-age children began traveling off the island to attend school. By 1987, about 10 to 12 children traveled to Orcas Island for school.

A view of the inside of the school through the viewing bars, including the original children’s desks, teacher’s desk, chalkboards and furnace (Isabella Tranello).

Despite dedicated efforts to refurbish the one-room schoolhouse, it remains unused and closed to public entry. SPU students visiting the Field Station can see the schoolhouse but can only go as far as the porch and the roughly two-foot square viewing area inside.

Educational Opportunities in the San Juan Islands:

Unlike other islands in the San Juan Islands, which have school districts and schoolhouses, the closing of the schoolhouse on Blakely Island meant the disappearance of an official educational institution. Luckily, the full-time residents on the island, many of whom are retired, do not have children, so there is no need to have a functioning school system. But other islands do, such as Orcas and Lopez Island. While they both have official schools for all grade levels, they also have unique opportunities for extended learning.

One is the Port Stanley Schoolhouse on Lopez Island. SPU students or general visitors of Blakely Island who wish to walk through a functional and preserved schoolhouse, the Lopez Island Historical Society & Museum might be worth a trip.

It is not a one-room schoolhouse like the Blakely Island schoolhouse; instead, it has three rooms. Although slightly different, it is also essential to the history of Lopez Island. Executive Director of the Lopez Island Historical Museum Amy Frost recalls the community’s deep passion for restoring this significant historical structure, reminiscent of the call to restore the Blakely Island schoolhouse.

A side view of the exterior of the Port Stanely Schoolhouse at the Lopez Island Historical Museum looking out on the water (Courtesy of Amy Frost).

“They saw it as an opportunity for the community to restore it, to have another building that reflected the history and was available for public use,” Frost said. “When it was restored, there were still many people here who went to school there. In the mid-1990s, some people were only in their 70s and had gone to school there.”

For a place like Lopez Island with a present population of children, a schoolhouse that can be rented out for classes allows them to meet the educational standards of their class while also engaging with the island’s history. The schoolhouse is available for rent for parties, art classes, general visits and full-time usage when needed.

Some islands even have preschools, such as Kaleidoscope Preschool on Orcas Island. The preschool primarily serves children and families on Orcas Island who aspire to find a quality childcare program and start their children’s learning early. Director Amber Paulsen believes their center is exceptionally unique and offers learning opportunities unavailable elsewhere.

“I think the most unique component of our program is our outdoor nature-based program. We have a very supportive family group committed to outdoor education,” Paulsen said. “We’re finding great benefit from this unique style of early learning. And the more time I spend in the forest with the kids and my teachers, the more I believe that the world would be better if every human could spend a year in the forest.”

While young children no longer learn in the small schoolhouse amongst the forestry of Blakely Island, education persists at the Field Station. Like the first homesteaders, SPU students sail across the Salish Sea and plant their feet on the beautiful shores of Blakely Island.

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