Craig MacGowan is a bit of a living legend in local science-education circles.
He created "Mac's Field Guides," handy laminated primers to the Northwest's birds, trees and marine creatures. But mostly he's known for "Mac's kids" -- the more-than-2,000 Seattle high-school students, now all adults, he led on science trips during a four-decade teaching career in Seattle's public schools.
"Ecuador, Kenya, Australia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, we had science adventures absolutely everywhere," recalls MacGowan.
MacGowan, 76, is long retired. But he's been unexpectedly called back into service for a reason that's unusual, but also won't surprise anyone who has dealt with the sometimes soul-crushing bureaucracy of Seattle schools.
This spring MacGowan will lead what amounts to a guerrilla field trip. It's 40 Garfield High School kids in the oceanography classes going to Maui, Hawaii, in April to learn firsthand about marine science. But bizarrely the kids have to skip school to do it, and their current teacher has been barred from going, because the entire trip is happening without the consent of Seattle Public Schools.
"It's insane it seems to have come to this," MacGowan says.
Since the 1970s, marine-biology classes at Garfield have raised money through the year for a chance to go study in the wild the sea life they've seen mostly on videos or preserved in glass jars.
This year, after parents had paid deposits for the trip, it was canceled. Apparently the district wanted an administrator to go along (normally it operates with the teacher, Jonathan Stever, along with some college-level marine biologists as chaperones).
A district official said in a recent email to parents only that "specific conditions were not met, which resulted in the cancellation of the trip."
It was too late to get parents their $200 trip deposits back. So after what he described as "a long battle with the district continuing to challenge our trips," the teacher, Stever, switched control of the trip outside of the school altogether, to a wilderness-education group called Post 84 that's affiliated with the Boy Scouts.
"So we have to leave the school in order to take a school trip," says Luz Villasana, the mother of a sophomore in the class.
It means the teacher can no longer go on his own class trip: "They are saying if I go during my own time and donate my expertise I will be insubordinate and open to disciplinary action," Stever wrote to parents.
It also means the students technically are skipping school for the four days of the trip that overlap with the school calendar.
"SPS central office will not grant 'excused' absences for students who choose to attend this non-SPS sanctioned function," a school-district official wrote to parents. This could mean the students will get zeros on any work or tests missed.
Good grief. The district is right to worry about liability on field trips, having paid a $700,000 settlement for an alleged sexual assault on a trip back in 2012. But there's got to be a better way than turning students who are trying to learn into truants, and a teacher who is trying to teach into an outlaw.
A petition to the district is notable in that it has been signed by dozens of "Mac's kids" from the '80s through the 2000s -- all testifying how their experiences changed their lives and careers.
"It was a transformative and eye-opening experience for me," wrote Christy Shelton, about a Garfield trip to Papua New Guinea in the '80s. "I worked two jobs in the summer and after school and actively fundraised with other students to be able to go. The science field trips are one of the things that makes Garfield special."
Most transformed was Stever, a Garfield grad and one of "Mac's kids" who grew up to take over for his mentor. He recruited MacGowan to replace him for this spring's now illicit trip.
Stever, citing his delicate position, declined to be interviewed. But MacGowan said what's happening in education is dispiriting.
"Where are they going to learn a passion for marine biology -- sitting in a classroom, or out diving on a reef?" he said. "If this marks the beginning of the end of getting out in the world in the Seattle public schools, it's the saddest thing that's ever happened."
I continue to be a fan of Seattle schools, in part because of bright lights like this marine-sciences program. But when teachers are going rogue just to educate the students, something is seriously out of whack.
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