Heather White smiles while students raise their hands to answer a question on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Heather White smiles while students raise their hands to answer a question on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In child care desert, Camano’s pioneering forest school faces shutdown

Island County Public Works abruptly banned a school from a nature preserve, its cofounders said. Parents are outraged and aghast.

CAMANO ISLAND — Under a canopy of Douglas fir and Western redcedar, 13 students inspected a spider Monday, identified Polypore fungi and climbed a rained-soaked tree trunk.

Heather White, teacher and cofounder of the Springwood Forest School, watched and encouraged them — while quietly mourning the impending demise of the school she created.

Three days before Christmas, the Island County Public Works Department revoked the school’s use of county land in a letter sent to Heather and Andy White, the couple who founded the school in 2022. The department said the school went “off established trails,” “cut vegetation” and “marked/tag trees.”

Parks Superintendent Jan van Muyden declined to elaborate on the decision.

“I cannot comment and will not comment,” he said in a phone call.

The Springwood Forest School is one of 17 outdoor nature-based schools licensed in the state. Seven are on public lands, parks or preserves. Here, students learn outside all day in rain, snow or sunshine. Even naptime is in sleeping bags.

Springwood offers a full-time preschool program for children 2½ to 5 years old and a part-time program for children 5 to 11, both of which are year-round. There were 30 students enrolled as of this month.

On Monday morning, students and teachers traveled to a Camano farm about 10 miles south from their main campus at the Four Springs Lake Preserve, owned and operated by Island County.

Staff filled the week with field trips — distractions to keep spirits high ahead of Springwood’s last day, Feb. 29.

Since last summer, Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair and Heather White have talked about Public Works’ concerns with Springwood’s use of Four Springs Lake Preserve.

St. Clair wants to help the school relocate, though Springwood staff said moving isn’t a realistic option.

‘There was nothing here’

Outside of Four Springs Preserve on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Outside of Four Springs Preserve on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In 2014, eight weeks after giving birth, Heather White returned to work at a financial firm in New York.

As the Whites toured East Coast child care facilities, the couple felt torn between “unsafe” at-home facilities and YMCAs with “unhappy” teachers. The one place they loved turned out to be too expensive.

In New York, Heather White worked in a French-American in-home daycare. The couple heard about new policies allowing outdoor schools in Washington.

In 2019, the family moved to Stanwood. They witnessed firsthand the lack of child care options.

“There was only faith-based, part-time child care,” Heather White said. “And the one program that I wanted to enroll (my child) in, never wrote me back, so there was nothing here.”

Heather White worked with Island County’s child care task force to evaluate the need. Then she served as a consultant to move forward the task force’s recommendations. That’s how she met St. Clair.

With no child care options, Heather White started drafting plans for an outdoor school, while taking care of her own children from home.

Springwood Forest School opened in early 2022.

At the Camano farm Monday, Heather White called the children into a yurt for their morning gathering. The group formed a circle next to a lit fireplace and chanted:

“I pledge allegiance to the Earth, to its mountains, rivers, soil and sky. One planet, irreplaceable, to be cherished and protected by all.”

A student puts their hands out to feel raindrops as it begins to pour on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A student puts their hands out to feel raindrops as it begins to pour on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Isla, 7, a girl with two long French braids, shared a trick she learned.

“Did you know that you can predict the weather with pine cones?” she asked her audience. “Yeah! If the scales are closed up that means a storm is coming. If the scales are open that means it’s gonna get warm.”

“Wow,” the kids responded in unison.

Isla was one of the first children to call the Four Springs Lake Preserve her classroom. Her favorite spot on the 50 acres is called “Dreamland,” the only cedar grove in the preserve. When she takes new students there, she tells them: “All of your dreams will come true.”

At the farm, Isla pointed out a huckleberry plant and a fern, alongside her 4-year-old brother, Kellen.

“Don’t touch that,” she cautioned him, gesturing toward a nettle plant. Nettle often leaves a stinging sensation, but wiping fern leaves on the wound can help, she explained.

Heather White walked to her car to get a book and a wooden basket filled with mandarins. Her youngest students were born during COVID shutdowns.

“They need so much support because of those things,” she said. “Many of them have speech delays, and many of them have social emotional delays.”

She said outdoor preschool licenses require one teacher for six students. According to state law, traditional preschools need a 1-to-10 ratio.

‘We don’t allow visitors to go off trail’

Olivia Viscioso talks with student Silas Matuson, 4, during a game on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Olivia Viscioso talks with student Silas Matuson, 4, during a game on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

St. Clair has visited the school many times. The county commissioner’s district covers Camano and North Whidbey Island. She wanted Springwood to open a second location on Whidbey.

“I think (Heather White) is a visionary,” she said in an interview last week. “I care for her deeply, and I care deeply about the children at Four Springs.”

Still, she said the preserve isn’t a good fit for the school.

“There needed to be stronger communication between the school and parks about going off trails, because it is a nature preserve,” she said. “We don’t allow visitors to go off trail.”

Heather White said that since the school’s opening, park Manager Jim McDavid was difficult to work with. Heather White and multiple parents said he is a county employee who also lives on the preserve.

Asked to confirm, van Muyden said: “I cannot confirm anything.”

The Daily Herald’s attempts to contact McDavid were unsuccessful.

Public Works Assistant Director Fred Snoderly signed the letter revoking the school’s access to the preserve. He directed all questions to St. Clair — who said she was briefed on the decision, but had no say in it.

In March 2022, Heather White received a text from McDavid.

“Heather, I think I have a solution that will make you very happy,” he wrote. “More space and flexibility, and cover.”

The following day, he showed her a 20-by-40-foot forested area near the park’s entrance.

For five months, students and staff used the area for play and learning.

But in August, Heather White said he fenced the area without telling her. A nailed sign read: “TRAIL CLOSED Vegetation Recovery Area PLEASE KEEP OUT.”

In the letter, Public Works pinpointed that space on a map of violations, as evidence of misuse of the park.

The Whites had flagged concerns about McDavid to St. Clair, who told the school she filed a complaint, too, and requested a “corrective action plan.” White said the commissioner also reported McDavid would leave his position in October.

St. Clair said she could not confirm she told Heather White these things.

“That is a personnel matter and confidential,” she said.

St. Clair recommended clarifying the school’s land use agreement. The Whites said that was in the works. But the county never gave the school a chance to respond to allegations of environmental harm, according to the Whites.

St. Clair said better communication could have prevented this outcome.

The Whites believe the preserve can accommodate the preschool. The park is classified as a community park, not a conservation area, Heather White said.

Four Springs House, an event venue at the preserve, hosts weddings, corporate meetings and family reunions.

Springwood students often pick up trash after these events, Andy White said.

“The park is, ironically, cleaner because the kids are there,” he added.

‘A communication disconnect’

Springwood Forest School students make their way into a yurt for a snack and a story on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Springwood Forest School students make their way into a yurt for a snack and a story on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In 2021, Senate Bill 5151 made Washington the first state in the country to start licensing outdoor nature-based early learning and child care programs.

The bill says these programs take place in an “outdoor natural space.” It doesn’t mention any considerations for other users of these spaces.

Springwood’s closure shows a larger issue many outdoor nature-based programs face, said Nicole Corbo, director of the Washington Nature Preschool Association.

There is “a communication disconnect” between the programs and government, she said.

In one instance, Kitsap County officials told the WildWise School of Outdoor Adventure to install smoke alarms in the wooded area they used for lessons, Corbo said. So they put smoke alarms on the trees.

“They’re trying to manage an outdoor program the same way they would an indoor program,” Corbo said.

Other outdoor schools in Washington, she said, are in danger of outcomes similar to Springwood.

Debbie Groff, child care licensing area administrator for the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, said such programs in Washington take place on a variety of landscapes. Some are at state forests and city parks.

The inspiration for licensing outdoor programs, Groff said, was “equitable access.”

“All families look for that perfect spot for their kiddo to be involved in child care,” she said. “And some kids really do just flourish in nature-based settings. It becomes that place, that environment, which grows them in a way that maybe the traditional settings weren’t able to do.”

By getting licensed, the state can offer payment support to families. At Springwood, 40% of families receive the Working Connections subsidy, helping eligible families pay for child care. A family of three can earn up to $61,310 a year to qualify.

News of the mid-year closure left parents scrambling for solutions.

Heather White, co-founder of Springwood Forest School, helps a student put on their backpack on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Heather White, co-founder of Springwood Forest School, helps a student put on their backpack on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Gage Bennett and his wife, Lauren, enrolled their 3-year-old daughter at Springwood in June 2022. Before, the girl was afraid of talking to other kids at the playground. Now at Springwood, she loves greeting new students. She also picks up litter, writes her name, counts to ten and recognizes many plants.

One day, Gage Bennett picked a purple bell-shaped flower from the roadside for his wife.

A couple days later, on a family walk, they saw the same flower. His daughter knew what it was.

“Oh, that’s foxglove, that’s super dangerous,” the father remembered his daughter saying. “Don’t touch it with your hands. It can really hurt. It can kill animals.”

Now, his toddler is upset the school is shutting down.

Other preschools nearby only offer three hours of daycare, as opposed to Springwood’s all-day program. Or they require parents to take care of their child for the 30-minute break between morning and afternoon sessions.

As of 2021, the state Department of Commerce estimated 63% of Washington children live in child care deserts, where three or more children under 5 must compete for one preschool slot.

After a long search, the Bennetts found another preschool in Mount Vernon.

Others, like Alex Thoreen, haven’t been as lucky. If he can’t find child care, he’ll have to stay home with his son full-time.

“There’s so much value in spending time with peers as well as outdoors,” he said. “And the teachers here are experts in child development. I have only my own experiences to pull from. There’s so much that they can do that I can’t.”

His daughter, a Springwood alumna, took over during a guided tour on a family trip this month to the Eagle Interpretive Center in Rockport.

Thoreen also appreciates Springwood’s emphasis on emotional development.

“Staff here encourage the children to talk about why they have certain feelings,” he said, “as opposed to just, ‘Let’s get you to stop crying.’”

‘We just want to offer some solutions’

Heather White talks to the students about using their senses to describe the rain hitting the skylight of the yurt on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Heather White talks to the students about using their senses to describe the rain hitting the skylight of the yurt on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

At a Jan. 16 meeting, 10 parents and a teacher from Springwood shared their frustrations with the Board of Island County Commissioners.

The board is a legislative and executive body. Commissioners oversee county operations, financial matters and the adoption of laws.

Commissioner Jill Johnson, of District 1, said she broadly supported outdoor schools and regretted how things turned out.

“I will own the fact there are conversations and thought processes brought up today that I had not considered,” she said. “… I honestly didn’t really even consider the children, shockingly enough.”

The Board of Island County Commissioners could overrule Public Works, but has not. District 3 Commissioner Melanie Bacon and St. Clair both said Springwood should have had a clearer land use agreement.

“This is a private business,” Bacon said. “Any regular use of public lands for private benefit needs a larger conversation that never happened in this endeavor. And I’m not going to apologize for the county’s decision.”

The day after the meeting, Public Works did reach out to the school to apologize.

St. Clair thinks Camano still holds promise for future outdoor education programs. As an alternative, the county proposed the forest on Elger Bay Elementary’s property, about 7 miles south of Four Springs Lake Preserve.

“We just want to offer some solutions and see if we can find a path forward, if not for Springwood, for a future school,” St. Clair said.

White said moving isn’t an option for her school. Springwood’s license from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families is tied to Four Springs. It would take at least a year to redo the licensing process, White said.

Public Works staff reached out to the state to expedite licensing. St. Clair said state officials implied it could be done by the end of February. Heather White said she would need to rewrite the school’s hazard and evacuation plans if the school moved.

“You can’t simply move a child care program without heavy administrative lift,” she said.

Students run around while playing a game of fox tail on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students run around while playing a game of fox tail on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024 in Camano Island, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Heather White has no financial safety net.

“My plans are to find a job, because I don’t have a job on March 1,” she said. “And neither does my husband. And neither do all of these teachers.”

Samantha Wagner enrolled her 4-year-old Silas in 2022. After she and her husband, Shaun, started a flowers and greeting card business, the Working Connections subsidy helped her keep Silas in preschool.

She had visions of her 2-month-old baby attending Springwood, too. Over 30 families are on the school’s waitlist.

“I’m advocating hard for child care now, because I know that she’s going to need somewhere to go,” Wagner said.

The other licensed preschool, the Camano Island Lutheran Preschool, didn’t feel like much of a choice.

“Their mission is to teach through Jesus,” she said. “If that doesn’t fit in with how your family learns and experiences the world, then it isn’t necessarily the best fit.”

Like other parents, Wagner spoke at the county commissioners meeting. She also sent The Herald a 40-page media packet, spelling out parents’ concerns.

She hoped the parents’ testimonies would make a difference.

“Because we’re a small community with a local government,” Wagner said, “I naively thought that this kind of thing should be able to be easily rectified.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed Commissioner Melanie Bacon’s words. The article also misstated where the Whites moved to from New York.

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460; taleah.vansistine@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

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