Beside the family, schools—and what happens in them—are the most important places in any community. The seeds of all future learning are planted there, social and athletic skills are nurtured, and values are explored.
by Don Holmlund | San Geronimo Valley Community Center
For more than 100 years, the Lagunitas School District has played a huge role in the lives of children, parents, and most residents of San Geronimo Valley. For the past 40-plus years, the District has offered various programs to facilitate all of these goals. These programs have also been a reflection of various populations living in the Valley, and through the years, there has been tremendous parental involvement in all programs within the school.
In the late 1800s, when the population of the Valley was largely limited to the big ranches in Woodacre and San Geronimo, the first school was located on Roy’s Ranch in San Geronimo (near the duck pond on San Geronimo Valley Drive), and the San Geronimo School District was formed in the 1870s. A second school was built in 1904 in Lagunitas as land was being developed there. (This building still exists as a private residence on W. Cintura Road in Lagunitas.) In 1924, a new school building was built to accommodate students from both schools, and the Lagunitas School District was born. In 1967, the building was condemned (and became the current San Geronimo Valley Community Center) and a new building was built next door. Later buildings were added for the Open Classroom on the upper campus in the mid-1970s. Some portable buildings were added for the Middle School in the early 1980s, and after a bond issue passed, a permanent building for the Middle School was constructed and opened by the mid-1990s. The Community Gym was completed in 2010.
The curriculum, teaching, and administration of the school was very stable and traditional until the late 1960s. At this time, the population of the Valley began to change. New residents, a good number of them artists, workers in the helping professions, and escapees from the Haight, found homes here. Often they found common ground around civil rights issues. Many were raising families. They became involved in cooperative pre-school groups. They wanted change in the school.
The Open Classroom
Among them was Sandy Dorward, who was hired by the school as a teacher in 1970. Sandy and other parents, with support from the District Superintendent, began to develop an Open Classroom alternative. The group identified four cornerstones upon which to build their program: parent participation, choice, play, and equal weight given to emotional growth/development. The fall of 1971 saw the first multi-graded Open Classroom (kindergarten – third grade) in the San Geronimo Valley, with Sandy as the teacher, joined by a very enthusiastic and skillful group of parent volunteers.
Judy Voets was a student teacher in this classroom at the time. When she completed her student teaching, she went to England to experience the “hands-on” approaches then becoming popular there. The British schools were using many materials and techniques that Judy recognized would be extremely useful for the program the Open’s founding families wanted to create. She brought back progressive teaching tools that were not used in California at that time. Some 150 families supported an expanded Open Classroom. The program was welcomed by some and vehemently opposed by others, but the School Board election of 1972 proved that a majority of the community supported alternatives in education. Richard Sloan was elected to the Board with a mandate to create choices for parents. Board meetings were very contentious; one community member called Sloan a Communist, another said if the Open Classroom proposal passed, it “would be the end of Western Civilization as we know it.” Richard recalls that “it almost came to blows.”
The program was adopted, and the district reformed the school into three programs. Parents were given a choice between the Open Classroom, the Existing Program, which consisted of the same teachers and classes as before, and the ABC Program (also known as Back to Basics), which consisted of a beefed up curriculum. The Open Classroom was able to hire outstanding teachers, and parental involvement, including classroom and financial support, remained extremely high. The ABC and Existing Programs also had stable enrollments and satisfied parents because they appreciated having a choice: Some children thrive in structured environments whereas others thrive in less structured classrooms. They liked the fact that there were alternatives.
The first class picture of the Open Classroom. Among those pictured are founding teacher, Sandy Dorward, and students Andrew Giacomini, Erik and Kevin Meade, Marc Edwards, Kira Thelin, Kristy Muhic, Margaret and Heather Dorward, Renee and Todd Berardi, Jennifer Graham, Joe Soewith, Greg Radue, and Kate Edmiston. Judy Voets (not pictured) was student teacher .
Academics & Excellence
Within a few years, due to teacher retirements and declining enrollment, the Existing Program was discontinued. In its place, another program was adopted, called Academics Plus, which gave families an even greater choice in their children’s education. This program offered greater enrichment in the curriculum including art and music. In the late 1970s, the ABC and Academics Plus programs merged into the A&E (Academics and Enrichment) Program, adding enrichment activities such as language (French) and dance. Parents of A&E students valued this program for many reasons: students learned in the traditional and structured manner; there were wonderful teachers; there were no combined grades; there were standardized tests by which comparisons could be made with other children and other schools. The A&E parents also were extremely active in the school, and would show up at Board meetings arguing against combining grades, and in favor of standardized testing. (Eventually the A&E program was discontinued in the early 2000s because of low enrollment and District financial difficulties.)
In 1981, a group of parents began meeting to explore the feasibility of a public Montessori school in the Valley. Their children had attended Montessori preschools, and the parents were convinced that this educational method would be a good fit for the Valley. They proposed this to the School Board. Montessori education emphasizes mixed age classrooms, student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and a “discovery” model, where students learn concepts from working with materials developed by Maria Montessori and colleagues, rather than by direct instruction. Once again, there was great opposition to this and contentious meetings were held. The original proposal was turned down. However, with the discovery of a successful public Montessori program in the San Mateo District, support from Richard Sloan arguing that families should be given a choice as to school program, and a newly elected School Board, the Montessori program was adopted, and classes began in 1982. The Montessori families were also tremendously involved in making their program a success. Enough money was raised to hire a Montessori trainer to work with the faculty here. The new program was popular, and some children came from other districts to enroll. It eventually grew into a K-5 program.
In 2004, the Waldorf-Inspired Program started in the Lagunitas School District with a kindergarten class. This also began with a group of parents wanting an alternative form of education for their children. These parents had petitioned the Ross Valley School District to start a charter school similar to the Novato Charter School, which had a Waldorf-Inspired curriculum and had been in existence since 1996. Ross Valley District was not interested, so a dialogue was started in the Lagunitas District with the addition of many Valley parents. Once again, Richard Sloan was very instrumental in encouraging the group and persuading other Board members to accept the proposal. Once again, there were major arguments and contentious Board meetings because the model of a charter school was new to this District, the Waldorf curriculum was new to many, and as always, there were financial anxieties. But the concept of parental choice of program prevailed, and there were classrooms available as the A&E program had closed.
Waldorf education is based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. This approach focuses on practical, hand-on activities and creative play for young children, developing artistic expression and social capacities for grammar school children, and developing critical reasoning and empathic understanding for older children. As with the other programs, parents in the Waldorf-Inspired Program were extremely involved, both in the classroom and financially. Due to a change in funding for the School District (Basic Aid), not as many students were coming from other Districts, and there was insufficient enrollment to justify hiring more teachers. The program was terminated in 2014. Most parents in the program were very disappointed, but felt deep gratitude toward the District for having supported it for 10 years.
The Middle School
For most of its history, the school district’s programs each consisted of a kindergarten and eight grades, with one teacher for each grade (or in the Open Classroom, several grades together). In the late 1970s, the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students from all programs wanted to be together with their peers and wanted a more “high school” atmosphere. Some were transferring to White Hill Middle School in Fairfax. The District then created the Lagunitas Middle School. Departments were formed, and students would have different teachers for different subjects and change rooms for the different classes. Middle School staff faces a challenge working with students from different programs, but they have been very successful at honoring those differences while providing students with skills to make the transition to high school. New buildings were constructed for the Middle School on their own campus, adjoining the other campuses.
Each segment of the Lagunitas School District—School Board, administration, staff, teachers, parents, and students—has done an admirable job over the years. Today, there are three programs in the District: the Open Classroom, the Montessori, and the Middle School. Each program has undergone challenging periods, but survived stronger because of the challenges. A constant has been the reflection of community values and desires, strong commitment to offering different programs to the community, and deep commitment to parental involvement in the lives of their children and the school. Current Lagunitas School Principal Laura Shain sums it up, “The School District has held onto its progressive educational approaches despite the political and societal pressures that have imposed upon much of public education in recent years. . . . Through determination and shared decision-making, the school has remained innovative and unique.”
Retired Superintendent Larry Enos agrees, “The passion and involvement by the school community outweighs difficulties and helps maintain a dynamic and vital environment for the children of the Valley.”