It’s not an accident that the Peninsula School District has produced three Rhodes Scholars in the past five years. First there was Mallory Dwinal and Elizabeth Betterbed, and now Miles Unterreiner, the latest finalist who credited his education to the school district.
The key to students like Unterreiner excelling academically is not just book smarts. It’s about enthusiasm. And the Rhodes Scholarship is not just financial help and prestige, it’s an opportunity. It’s about following passion.
When Unterreiner was asked to pick favorite PSD teachers, he was stumped. He said there were so many that he didn’t want to leave anyone out. He called growing up in Gig Harbor the beginning of his journey.
“We work really hard to hire the best people,” said Claudia Thompson, an academic officer for the PSD.
She added that the district also makes sure teachers and principals are updated with the best training available.
“The strength of our teachers and principals is really a part of why our students succeed,” she said.
When students leave the public school system — or any system, for that matter — their life is on a trajectory. It might mean college or trade school, or it might mean a steady job. What matters is the life experience they gained while they’re in school.
“Our overriding philosophy has been to make sure we provide students with opportunities to stretch their skills,” Thompson said.
Unterreiner, Dwinal and Betterbed stretched their skills. After all, winning a Rhodes is not easy. The competition is fierce, and the multi-level application process harrowing.
The students competed against equally bright and motivated minds from all across the country. From the large pool, only a few win. For three from Gig Harbor High School to be named in such a short amount of time, that’s a huge vote of confidence in the school district.
From the outside looking in, school is about pure academics, but if you walk into any classroom or school library, you’ll see that isn’t true. Look around the library at a place like Purdy Elementary. Walls are lined with books that can open minds to all sorts of adventures. There are various reading levels. Walls are lined with encouraging posters. It’s a place where reading is fostered and nurtured, not simply taught.
Unterreiner’s academic prowess began early and started off fun. In his application essay, he wrote about early childhood reading.
“(I) learned through long afternoons at the public library that everyone can and should stand up for what’s right,” he wrote.
The Peninsula School District also focuses on advanced placement and SAT preparation, Thompson said. The number of students who enroll in AP courses has increased during the past two years.
Unterreiner said his AP history class was a part of his path toward bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Stanford University, and that snowballed into his Rhodes scholarship to study international law and human rights at Oxford University.
That all started in a Gig Harbor High School classroom.
But it’s not just the schools that nurture students, it’s the whole community. Thompson said it wouldn’t be possible for teachers and principals to what they provide to students if it wasn’t for the receptive community.
In order to be a Rhodes scholar, students must have a desire to learn about the world around them. It’s prevalent in Unterreiner’s voice.
Gig Harbor should take pride in the students it produces, and not just the ones who make it all the way to Oxford. All are lucky to have teachers who inspire, encourage and bring out the best in them.