Pell Teacher and Fourth-Graders Set Sail

Being on the water is magical for Pell Elementary School Teacher Donna Kelly. And she believes it’s so important for local students to experience that magic that she’ll be taking a sabbatical year from her teaching position to partner with Sail Newport to develop and implement an integrated curriculum for all of the district’s fourth-graders.

As both a Newport teacher and the education chair for the Fort Adam’s based nonprofit organization, Kelly said she’s thrilled that the nearly complete Marine Education and Recreation Center will allow them to offer programming year-round, especially to local fourth-grade students.

“We live on an island and providing our students with an opportunity to learn to sail, learn about the island and the waters surrounding us, and apply that practical knowledge of things we’re learning in school such as weather, mapping and erosion [is important],” she said. “Everything will be tied into the curriculum.”

Starting in the fall, two classes of fourth-graders will be going to the Sail Newport campus once a week for eight weeks. During each two-and- a-half-hour session, half of the students will be sailing in Newport Harbor and Narragansett Bay, and half will be in the classroom learning about weather, mapping, erosion, landforms, ocean conservation, and sustainability, among other things.

Kelly, who grew up sailing and is married to a professional sailor, said she’s passionate about making it accessible to everyone. She had planned on taking a year off to volunteer her time for the project, but was thrilled when Superintendent Colleen Jermain was supportive of her taking it as a sabbatical and forging a lasting partnership between the school and Sail Newport.

“This is a great way for our students to step outside a traditional classroom,” Kelly said. “There will be a direct and immediate benefit to the district through this work. It makes sense for me to take a pause in the traditional teaching setting. I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger.”

During the sabbatical, Kelly will be writing curriculum with a team of teachers, helping to set up classes and providing supplemental support. The curriculum, which will be focused on the STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), will meet national standards. Students will learn boating safety and basic sailing skills on J/22 sailboats, which are 22 feet long, weigh about 1,700 pounds, have a fixed keel and are considered one of the easiest boats to learn to sail on. Kelly said the on-the-water aspect of the class is based on a program that’s been implemented in Bermuda and New Zealand, called “Waterwise.”

“I think it’s important for parents to know that we’re not just going rogue,” she said. “We’re putting an incredible amount of work into this. It’s also important for people to know that this is entirely free to the district. Sail Newport is [raising] all the [funds] from grant writing and private donors.”

The hope is that the magic of being on the water and participating in an interdisciplinary curriculum will extend beyond the classroom and affect the students on the emotional, physical and mental levels, she said.

“We have some behavior issues in the district, so I think that having our kids seeing their hometown from the water and being with nature will hopefully create a sense of peace and calm,” she said. “I have this hope that being out in the fresh air will motivate the kids. Sail Newport’s mission is to provide community access to the water, [and] to provide this to our children in public schools is amazing, because they might not otherwise have this kind of experience.”

Kim Cooper, director of marketing for Sail Newport, said the organization is thrilled to provide a classroom on the water for Newport children.

“They’re not just going to ride around in the boat; they’ll be working the tiller, pulling in the sail,” she said. “They’ll have to make quick decisions on the water, which will help grow camaraderie, communication and teamwork. Through it all, we’re also encouraging them to be environmental stewards.”

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