Looking around at her surroundings, senior Courtney VanderWal takes in a breath of fresh air and makes her way onto the school grounds of Goodwillie Environmental School. Walking this path is a familiarity to VanderWal as a Teacher Cadet and former student, but for many, this school is just a place they hear of in stories.
“The school is an incredible place,” VanderWal said. “With so many awesome memories, it’s hard not to stay in love with Goodwillie.”
As a school that required rigorous fourth grade applications in order to be accepted, Goodwillie is not the everyday experience for a young fifth and sixth grader. However, for the students, alumni, and current staff, that is why the school is so special: it offers a completely different way to transition into middle school.
“Goodwillie is unique because we teach and learn in a non-traditional learning environment,” said David Washburn, the principal of Goodwillie for the past three years. “The whole concept of having a ‘living classroom’ outdoors where students can learn is so very special.”
This “living classroom” concept is not one the school takes lightly. According to Washburn, the students are outside on a daily basis. From feeding the chickens to independent projects to lunch, the importance placed on the outdoors and learning by experience are the staples of what makes Goodwillie so special.
“It’s a very hands on experience,” commented Rebeka Benstein, senior and Goodwillie alumni. “You kind of got to go and do your own things, which was a luxury.”
Another reason that Goodwillie stands out among other schools is the small class size. With an average class size of 50 students from all three Forest Hills schools, the school of so few students each year is very tight knit.
“By having only 100 students, it allows us to build and maintain positive relationships with all students,” Washburn said. “The smaller number also allows to keep the integrity of the program.”
These relationships, however, are not just the ones that are built between staff and students. The peers themselves build bonds that stick with them throughout their Goodwillie years and beyond into their middle and high school days.
“I can tell you everyone who was in my grade,” Benstein said. “They always refer to it as the Goodwillie family, which is accurate.”
Moving into middle school, many used these friends as a support system when facing the shock of new peers, new rules, and a new building. For some, this transition proved to be difficult, while for others it was a simple switch. Either way, all faced large differences from the Goodwillie freedom they were used to.
“The obvious changes were the regular no recesses or snacks,” VanderWal said. “Also the size of the school and the lack of freedom or responsibility given. But a huge change was the people. Because the class sizes are so small at Goodwillie, I grew super close to everyone and not having them around really took some adjusting to.”
These people and the memories with them are a big part of what kept alumni like VanderWal in love with the school after so many years of being gone. For most of them, it’s hard to stay away.
“I am a Teacher Cadet at Goodwillie and I absolutely adore it,” VanderWal said. “I love working with the kids and being able to teach them the things that I learned while I was there.”
In addition to all of the things that make it unique, Goodwillie is also special not because of what it teaches, but what it shows. The independence and go-get-it attitude of those who come out of the Goodwillie walls shows that it not only puts kids through school, but for training for life.
“I believe goodwillie changes everyone in different ways, good and bad,” VanderWal said. “It gave me my a passion to continue to do greater things. Just like they push you in that school, I’ve always feel that push guiding me along on my high school journey.”
This trance that Goodwillie seems to keep its former students in has not faded as they have moved through life, but gotten stronger. Looking back on the experience, many, Benstein and VanderWal included, think of Goodwillie with love and fondness and would go back if they could.
“It was one of the best times of my life,” said Benstein with a smile. “There wasn’t a day I didn’t want to go to school, and I totally would go back if I could.”