September 27, 2019 | By Chuck Carlson
From the porch of the Whitehouse Nature Center, Jason Raddatz, ‘91, takes it all in.
The sun glints off the meandering Kalamazoo River as birds chip and frogs croak and the leaves of early autumn start to change color. This is nature in its purest form, and for the new director of the 140-acre nature center just south of the main campus, nothing could be better.
“This is my morning every morning,” he says as he notices a red-bellied woodpecker fly by and eyes a pesky patch of invasive weed just beyond his reach. “I don’t need an office.”
For Raddatz, who grew up in Petoskey, Mich., with a love of nature and an even greater love of education, this position is the best of both worlds.
“This is a living, breathing laboratory,” he says, looking out at the vista and imagining the possibilities.
And he sees an abundance in the Center that, in many ways and for many reasons, has not kept up with a rapidly changing world.
“What makes me cringe are people saying, ‘I remember coming here as a kid and it hasn’t changed,’” he said. “It needs to change.”
And he hopes to do that fueled by his enthusiasm and eclectic background that really began at Albion when he majored in economics and management but also studied ancient British literature (“everything up to Shakespeare,” he said) and music composition.
He would go on to work as a nurse, a fund accountant, a marketing coordinator, a card dealer at a casino. As a teen he was a professional musician where once he played saxophone with regional groups like the Northwoods and Grand Rapids Orchestra, several Bay View ensembles and national acts like Aretha Franklin.
But in 2004, he found his home as a teacher, following in the footsteps of his family, including his father, Joel, who was a teacher and a school district superintendent.
Using a nontraditional form of teaching in which he engaged students with technology, problem solving and innovative ways to engage students, he established himself as a teacher who did more than provide facts.
He taught in Boyne Falls, Mich., Custer, Mich., and Yuma, Ariz., then returned to Michigan in 2010 where he was head of the science department for the West Michigan Academy for Environmental Science near Grand Rapids.
Three years later he was the new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) coordinator for Albion Public Schools and, after the merger with Marshall Public Schools, he revamped the science curriculum at the Marshall Opportunity High School and was named MPS Teacher of the Year in 2017-18 and was named a Michigan Innovative Educator in July.
Indeed, his long-standing work in STEM has led to Raddatz being part of a nine-teacher national group that traveled to the United Arab Emirates in August to help teachers in that country incorporate STEM into their curriculum as part of STEM Revolution.
Now in his new role at the Nature Center, Raddatz is boiling over with ideas.
It starts with the basics in which he plans to improve the trails and make them more accessible to all visitors. He’d like to improve the Center’s main facility, which he hopes will include enclosing the riverside porch and making it three-season; and he’d like to make the Center more accessible to students—not only at Albion but for kids throughout the area.
In fact, he’d like the Nature Center to become a second classroom and have instructors bring their classes down to study outside on nice fall and spring days.
“Research shows we retain 30 percent more information when we’re outside because we’re wired to be outside,” Raddatz said.
He’d also like to hold more events for the community, including a science-based day he began with Albion Public Schools called “Geekend.”
“I’d love to do a Shakespeare in the Park,” he added. “Why not?”
He’s even got a plan to deal with the invasive plants—bringing in goats to eat them.
“I don’t want to be director of the Whitehouse vine center,” Raddatz said. “I want to be director of the Whitehouse Nature Center.”
Changes won’t come easily or quickly, but after 16 years as a public school teacher, he knows nothing worth doing just happens.
“People find this to be an incredibly valuable resource that has been underutilized,” he said. “And I said, ‘That’s a challenge.’ I want to know what this is going to look like in 20 years.”
And for Jason Raddatz, it’s just another step in a direction he was always meant to take.