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Summer "Think Tank" Session Spurs Ideas for Methow Semester School Program

Even for individuals  familiar with the outdoor beauty of the Pacific Northwest, the Bush Methow Campus provides a striking first impression. Tucked away on a dirt road in the heart of the Methow Valley, the twenty-acre campus and educational facility in Mazama, Washington, has been providing Bush students, faculty, and staff with immersive experiences, and bridging the gap between community, environment, and self since 2016. 
 As part of the 2025 Bush Strategic Plan, and evolution of the campus, the development of a Semester School is the next step. In preparation for this eventual semester school opportunity, a  month-long Cascades pilot program is set to launch in January of 2023. 

In summer 2022, an independent  group of Bush faculty and staff, along with members from two regional independent schools, spent four days  at the campus for a summer “think tank” session. 

“People who had never been there before were captivated by the beauty,” said Bush’s Assistant Head of School for Academics Sarah Smith. “I think the locale was very, very, inspiring.” 

With the North Cascades mountains serving as a backdrop, and ideal summer conditions, from June 28 through July 1, a group of ten educators came together to brainstorm curricular ideas, program features, residential programming, and get a better sense of what the physical space of the Methow Valley can provide for the Methow Semester School Program. 

“Our goals and purpose for doing this was growing an awareness beyond our borders for this vision around the Semester School,” Sarah said. “ Building partners, in this case, representatives from two other schools, and tapping into people’s expertise that went beyond what those of us on the Bush side might know… building excitement about what could be possible there was all part of the goal.”

Along with Sarah, Director of Development and Strategic Initiatives Sharon Hurt, Director of College Counseling Melissa Lancott, Upper School Science Teacher and Science Department Co-Chair Laura LeBlanc, Upper School English Teacher Jasmine Smith, and Upper School Science Teacher Luke Dauner are all part of the Bush Methow planning team, with Jasmine and Luke serving as the two faculty who will lead the pilot program in January. Joining them was  former Bush faculty member Ben Wheeler, who lives part time in the Valley and hopes to stay involved with  Methow Campus developments.  

In May, Bush Head of School Percy L. Abram reached out to the Heads of Schools from a few regional institutions  with similar missions who share an emphasis on place-based learning and experiential education. Dr. Abram extended an invitation  to explore the idea of a partnership. Director of Outdoor Education Lindsay Babbitt from the Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, along with Outdoor Program Co-Director Travis Vandenburgh and Outdoor Programs Associate Celeste Holland, both from Sun Valley Community School in Idaho, made the trip to the Valley to be a part of the think tank. Individuals from Liberty Bell High School in Winthrop were also invited but couldn’t attend.

“I understand that Bush has the opportunity to leverage our faculty’s talent, the school’s mission, our students’ passions, and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest to build something unique and lasting,” said Percy. “By partnering with our peer schools in the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, we can harness their creativity and insights into our planning to improve upon the educational foundations that we have built so far.”

During the time in the Methow, the group split into pairs and were assigned different topics to explore more in depth. Topics ranged from residential life, a day in the life, core curricular design, mental health and wellness, and school culture. 

“The community got built pretty quickly,” Sarah said of the meshing of the group. “We had an opening circle on the first afternoon. The thread that we asked everyone to share around was a transformative educational experience from their own life. Remarkably enough, for the vast majority of people, their examples circled back to experiences that were not dissimilar from a semester school/immersion style program, so that was really inspiring to think about the impact this future semester school program could have.” 

Sharon invited Bush alumna Sabine Blumenthal '19 to meet up with the group and share her own semester school experience at The High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, Colorado. 

“She was just a powerful example of alumni engagement and really gave us a lot of great insight on  thinking through the future of the Bush semester school,” Sarah said. 

Sharon said the next steps  for the semester school is a focus on launching the pilot program and continuing to hone in on partnerships within the Methow community. 

“I think they really appreciated the space,” Sharon said of the group's reaction. “The more we did, the more the appreciation grew. We did a couple of field trips, which I think really helped them understand the Methow Valley a little bit more, the context of community and the land.”

Both Sarah and Sharon agreed the think tank session was a big stepping stone to creating the enthusiasm for what the Methow Semester could be.

“This could really be a differentiator for the school and cement our place  as leaders in progressive, place-based, experiential education,” Sharon said.

Added Sarah: “ Our time for visioning and planning made it  abundantly clear that when you bring people who share a mission and an interest together for a residential learning experience in a sublimely beautiful setting, wondrous growth and development can occur.”

-by Mary Albl, Communications Manager
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