Initially founded by Chris and Pam Maxey in 1999, with academic support from The Lawrenceville School, The Island School is an independent academic program in The Bahamas for high school sophomores or juniors. The 14-week course of study includes classes in ecological science, field-based scientific research, history, mathematics, art, and English literature, as well as physical and outdoor education, cultural immersion experiences, and service learning.
Our entire program is place-based and experiential, intentionally immersing the students in both the natural and cultural landscape of South Eleuthera. Consequently, all courses have a field component to them. For example, in the applied scientific research course, students conduct primary research for a wide spectrum of investigations, including fisheries, sustainable energy and food production systems, and cultural resources.
Similarly, the thrust of the coursework in the Humanities classes stems from the many cultural immersion experiences throughout the semester. On top of weekly service learning projects in collaboration with Bahamian students at Deep Creek Middle School, Island School students spend considerable time learning from and with the inhabitants of the local settlements.
Rounding out the semester are the physical and outdoor education programs. Not only do students spend five mornings each week training for either a half-marathon or four mile open-ocean swim, but also they participate in two sea kayaking trips and earn PADI’s Open Water Diver certification.
Ultimately, the rigorous schedule and programs create a transformative experience for our students, who gain deep understandings of leadership, sustainability, community, and sense of place. Our admissions process is competitive; selected students demonstrate solid academic performance, leadership potential, and a high degree of self-motivation. Please contact us for more information.
Three institutional keystones—sense of place; sustainability; and community—tie The Island School’s entire curriculum together. Focusing on these core principles ensures that students come away from their experience on Eleuthera with a deep understanding of what it means to know and live in a place, the sacrifices and rewards of sustainable lifestyles, and the opportunity for learning and growth that comes from a supportive community.
Sense of Place
The term “sense of place” has been used in many ways by many people and it is often only muddily defined. At The Island School, we use sense of place to refer to intimacy with the natural and cultural environment. Hence, we seek to cultivate in our students profound understandings of ecology, systems, history, and culture through direct experience in the ecosystems and communities that surround us. Our text books are tidal creeks, conversations with local inhabitants, and the artificial wetland that processes our wastewater.
So a visitor to our community might witness students lying flat on their bellies on a sand bar, grappling with the concept of horizons in mathematics class, or standing knee-deep in our mangrove wetland, busily recording their observations in a field notebook. Or perhaps that visitor passed our students in Deep Creek working with local middle school students to interview inhabitants regarding their use of native plants. And maybe our guest did not immediately notice anything different about English class, until she realized that the voice she heard speaking so elegantly about the relationships between postcolonial themes in Omeros and the tourism industry in The Bahamas was a student’s, and not the teacher’s.
The true wealth that America offered, wealth that could turn exploitation into residency, greed into harmony, was to come from one thing—the cultivation of local knowledge. It was in the pursuit of local knowledge alone that one could comprehend the notion of a home and its attendant responsibilities. So the first questions at Guanahaní might better have been: Who are these people? What is this land?
Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America
Regardless of the context, our students are continually encouraged to ask good questions, listen or observe attentively for the responses, and reflect thoughtfully on what they are learning. Therefore, one emphasis is developing in our students skills that are both essential to their understanding of and transferable to any place. However, there is also an important ethical component to the sense of place we espouse. To be intimate, after all, implies a sense of caring and responsibility; it requires shared experiences and recognition of common interests. In this way, a developed sense of place provides an entry point for our students both to know a place as well as to envelope it in their moral sphere.
All human professions, institutions, and activities must be integral with the earth as the primary self-nourishing, self-governing and self-fulfilling community. To integrate our human activities within this context is our way into the future.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth
A search for “sustainability” on Google will yield nearly 33 million results. Indeed, with the growing instability in oil prices and general unease with the state of the world’s economies, there has been considerable thought and conversation directed toward defining what sustainability means and how it can be achieved. Since its inception ten years ago, The Island School has contributed to this movement not through theoretical abstraction but through practical application and experimentation. During this time, we have learned that sustainability involves much more than recycling waste streams or reducing energy consumption. The environmental component is important, to be sure, but it cannot stand alone. True sustainability begins with individual lifestyles and requires a commitment from every member of the community to embrace the challenge of personal change. It requires every person to live out the principles of sustainability on environmental, social, and economic levels. This is the sustainability we teach at The Island School.
Students must confront the realities of sustainable living in The Bahamas at every point in their day. In fact, we maintain healthy bodies by starting each day with an hour of exercise. From there, students and teachers alike split off into chore groups—some clean the dorms, others help to prepare breakfast, some feed the pigs and goats on the farm, and others monitor the energy our photovoltaic cells and wind turbine produced the previous day. And all of this happens before 8:00 a.m.!
Following the cycle of just one of our resources is emblematic of the awareness that pervades our lives. For instance, our freshwater needs are supplied by rainfall diverted from the rooftops into cisterns. That same water is heated for use in showers and sinks with solar hot water technology. Once down the drain, plants in an artificial wetland process the water to allow for its safe return to the ground while simultaneously providing shade and beauty to the center of our campus.
Ultimately, students learn that sustainability is a collective endeavor that demands flexibility in thought, attitude, and behavior. More importantly, they learn the value of sacrifice—not for ascetic purposes, but out of humility, respect, and fairness for the rest of the living world and future generations.
A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Albert Einstein, from a letter dated 1950.
The concept of community at The Island School is fundamentally about relationships. And we interpret this concept in the broadest possible sense. So not only are students encouraged to investigate their relationships with other humans, they are also challenged to extend that consideration outward to include their relationships with the living world, non-living systems, and the whole of the known universe.
As a keystone of our school, the thread of community is prominently stitched throughout the student experience. For example, weekly advisory and community meetings, the humanities classes, and cultural contact opportunities develop the students’ understandings of human relationships, while science and research classes, SCUBA diving, and sea kayaking center on exploring mankind’s role and responsibilities in the ecosystems we share with other life forms. Finally, the sustainable systems seminar, environmental art class, and celestial navigation mathematics course stretch this concept to its outer limits, pushing students to identify connections they share with the material world and beyond.
Ultimately, this outward exploration of relationships forces students to reflect inward, deepening their understanding of that person in the center of the “circle of compassion”—the self. Supported by advisory activities, history assessments, the 48-hour solo experience during kayak trips, and the culminating Demonstration of Learning presentations, students must continually confront their own image and identity. In this way, students ideally learn as much about themselves as they do about the “other” during their fourteen week semester.
Our entire curriculum guide can be downloaded as PDF here.