CAMANO ISLAND — A team of sixth-grade students spent months clearing beaches of garbage, then turned their treasure trove of trash into art for a local park.
The project was the final lesson at a small private school on Camano Island that closed this summer.
Students from Summit Expeditionary Academy learned about marine habitats and the effects of litter and pollution while picking up garbage around the island. They found plastic bags, barrels, tires, flip-flops, shotgun shells and water bottles, among other debris. At the end of the project, they used the garbage to craft a sculpture of an orca that now stands at Freedom Park off Highway 532 near Terry’s Corner.
Summit was a private school for kindergarten through sixth grade focused on learning through adventure and hands-on experiences, director Jane Cassady said. The academy, which opened in 2008 and relied on tuition, grants and donations, closed at the end of July. There were 22 students enrolled for the 2014-15 school year.
“We were a small school out here on the island and it was hard to get the student population we needed,” Cassady said.
The orca sculpture was a fitting way to end the school’s seven-year run, she said.
“It’s our legacy,” she said.
Many of the sixth-graders who worked on the project had been with Summit since kindergarten. They learned Washington state history by exploring the woods as though they were the Lewis and Clark expedition, playing the roles of cartographers, botanists and guides. They created a graphic novel to practice art and writing, then presented it at Emerald City ComicCon in Seattle. As for science, “Port Susan was kind of our laboratory,” Cassady said.
John Yengoyan, 12, was a student at Summit from kindergarten to sixth grade. He likes math and plays lacrosse after school. He and his classmates collected, washed and studied tons of marine debris for the orca project.
“I have done a lot of great projects in the past,” he said. “This one is going to stay with me for a long time.”
He studied the effects of plastic on animals for the project and learned that “plastic is a huge problem in the world.” His favorite part of the work is seeing people at the park look at the sculpture.
“I hope that people will look at Greyson the Whale and think all that plastic was in the water and will try to use less plastic,” he said.
Building Greyson the Whale, named after teacher Greyson Spencer, was the students’ idea based on all the black and white trash they collected. The students even came up with the shape by creating a clay model of the orca, which local metalworker and artist Rick Wesley used as the basis for the sculpture’s metal frame.
Noah McCready’s favorite part of the Orca project was running along Camano Island beaches picking up trash. It was like an Easter egg hunt, the 12-year-old said, except with garbage.
“We went all around the island for probably two months gathering trash from beaches all over Camano Island,” he said. “None of the trash came from Whidbey Island or any other place. It’s all Camano Island.”
He hopes that detail will be eye-opening for people who see the sculpture, which he estimates contains about a quarter of the trash they collected.
“I hope they see that there’s a lot of trash on there and that humans can make that much trash,” he said. “Plastic really never goes away. Even if you kind of see it degrade and you can’t see it anymore, it really doesn’t go away ever.”
It’s important for students to be able to relate lessons to real-world problems, Cassady said. It’s even more important for them to find solutions to those problems and focus on what they can do to help.
A whale made of garbage is a good way to make a point because it doesn’t need a lot of words to go with it, Cassady said.
“It’s an incredibly powerful message,” she said. “You don’t have to educate people about plastic. They can see it’s trash up close, but from far away it’s beautiful.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.