Challenge Island

Jessica Nathan teaches a lesson with Challenge Island

Jessica Nathan didn’t plan for a teaching career. Growing up Jewish in Bogota, Colombia, Nathan moved to the United States for school, earning a master’s degree in social work. That was the path she assumed she would stay on. Eventually, she grew restless and looked for a change.

After moving from city to city, she finally settled in Scottsdale where she stumbled on Challenge Island. The educational enrichment program spoke to her, and she felt inspired by a new sense of mission.

Nathan loved the concept immediately, calling it the “most well-rounded educational program” she’s encountered. Both her earlier career in social work and her transition to educator were inspired by her own Jewish education and its emphasis on community.

Challenge Island was developed by a Jewish educator, Sharon Duke Estroff, while she was still teaching second grade in Atlanta. That also proved a draw for Nathan. Along with being founder and CEO of Challenge Island, Estroff is a syndicated Jewish parenting columnist and author. She franchised her educational enrichment program in 2003. Nathan’s territory is now Northeast Maricopa County.

The STEAM-based program is not directed at Jewish kids, but “there’s a little bit of Judaism sprinkled in,” in terms of additional programming ideas around the Jewish holidays, explained Nathan.

But it isn’t just that or the focus on science and technology that Nathan finds compelling. “It is a mindset” students learn that will lead them to successful futures, she said.

The program’s central idea is that by enriching a school’s current classes with a STEAM curriculum it will help them develop important skills geared towards the future. Challenge Island emphasizes collaboration, critical thinking and flexibility and uses project-based learning.

The program is taught in after-school classes, but it also extends to camps and offers private lessons for small groups. It presents challenges that students must meet with whatever resources they have at hand.

Before COVID-19, some of those resources would be provided in person. Now that the program is virtual, students have to get creative with whatever they can find at home.

“It’s a really cool life lesson,” Nathan said. “It’s not just teaching words in a class, but something they carry with them after.”

The mainstays of the program are the thematic island sessions that lend the program its name. One session consists of eight or more classes focused on a unique destination.

“We take the kiddos on an imaginary journey to Tel Aviv where they learn about Israel,” she said, explaining one recent session. For that destination, Nathan teaches facts about geography, clothing, music and art. Then she turns to weather patterns and what the implications are for the nation’s water resources. The students even discuss the basics of how to build an irrigation system.

“Through that process you’re learning about the engineering of building an irrigation system and the science behind it,” she said. “But we also talked about culture and geography so they come out learning about a lot of different topics.”

One local parent, Jennifer Flores, gave the program high marks and said her two children enjoyed the destination themes. Now her youngest, who “loved learning that engineers are creative,” has added it to her list of possible careers.

There are also shorter “island getaways” that can be part of private events or parties as well as school workshops or in-school field trips.

While each session has a different theme, “at the center of it is really science, technology, engineering, arts and math,” Nathan said. “That’s the core of what we do with kiddos.”

Challenge Island is academic, but Nathan said another important aspect is social. The kids work in groups to solve challenges. They communicate, problem solve, acquire leadership skills, and the hope is that this will bolster them emotionally as well as academically.

Nathan didn’t start offering Challenge Island until after the coronavirus pandemic began.

“I knew that I was going to have a bit of an uphill climb,” she said. She remains undaunted though, because Challenge Island moved quickly with virtual sessions.

“There’s a million virtual offerings, but there’s nothing like Challenge Island,” Nathan said. “After a challenge you’ve learned 20 different things, and there’s not a lot of programs than can offer that.” JN

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