In the late 1960’s, the San Geronimo Valley, like most of the country, was in a state of flux. New residents, a good number of them artists or working in helping professions, found homes in its canyons and clearing. Often they found common ground around civil rights issues. Many were raising families. They became involved in cooperative pre-school groups. Sandra and Jack Dorward were part of a growing group of parents with school-age children who were looking for a more progressive, pragmatic approach to education, and attended school board meetings of the Lagunitas School District to start a dialogue about innovative educational ideas with board members, talking about ways to accomplish them in the public school.
In 1970 Sandy was hired to fill a teaching position in the school district. During her first year in the district, parents received support from then-Superintendent Joe Ammato to develop a parent-participatory Open Classroom alternative for the district. The group identified four cornerstones upon which to build their program:
- parent participation
- equal weight given to emotional growth/development
The fall of 1971 saw the first multi-graded Open Classroom in the San Geronimo Valley, with Sandy Dorward as the teacher. That first class encompassed kindergarten through third grade, joined by a very enthusiastic and skillful group of parent volunteers. Many were teachers, social workers, artists or craftspeople. Some had experience in parent participation nursery schools. Judy Voets was her student teacher. Judy was very interested in the British Infant School. When she finished her period with Sandy, she went to England to experience their “hands-on” approaches. That time was pivotal. The British schools were using many materials and techniques 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 available in California at that time.
The program was welcomed by some and opposed by others, but the school board election of 1972 proved that the majority of the community supported alternatives in education. 150 families supported an enlarged Open Classroom. Richard Sloan was elected to the board with a mandate to create choices for parents. The district reformed the school into three elementary school programs. Parents were given a choice between the Open Classroom, a 3 R’s program, and the conventional self-contained classroom.
Five new teachers were hired for the Open in a stroke of luck that had created many vacancies just as they were needed. Besides Sandy, the original elementary school teachers were Judy Voets, Mario LaMorte, Beth Williams, and Leif Glomset. Sue Thoms was hired for the 7th and 8th grades. Those first years were exciting and stormy as the staff, parents and children tried to figure out what exactly an open education was … and what it was not. The staff worked with a counselor to strengthen their self-understanding and ability to support each other. Parents and staff together experimented with group decision-making formats, with emphasis on consensus — total group agreement.
As the dust began to settle, enrollment stabilized at about 100 with 4 teachers, after a high of 150 overwhelmed the building. The program went from kindergarten through 8th grade. Initially Open’s 7th and 8th graders were on the same campus with the younger children. That class moved to the Lagunas campus near the rest of the district’s 7th and 8th grades. It eventually merged with them to become the middle school program. In 1979, as enrollment declined countywide, the Open went to three elementary school teachers. In 1984 Mario LaMorte became principal of the district. Amy Valens filled Mario’s teaching position, followed by John Kaufman. Enrollment jumped in 1990, and we again went to four classrooms. Larry Nigro was hired as the fourth teacher.
Over the years our teacher retention has been very high. Judy Voets shared a position with Molly Whitely during the 1992-93 school year and then retired from classroom teaching in 1994. Molly went back to being the district Science specialist and Rebecca Braun was hired as the fourth teacher. She stayed until 2000. Changes in class size policy led to a brief period of 5 full time teaching positions, which is when Marlene Maiello (then a parent in the program) came on board, sharing a teaching position with Amy Valens, (long involved in a variety of positions, including many years in the art room). Founding teacher Sandy Dorward retired in 2000, and with Rebecca Braun’s departure Amy and Marlene each took on a class. A brief surge in enrollment brought Laurie Riley to us, and for a year the San Geronimo Library was given over to Amy’s class. When John Kaufman moved over to the Middle School in 2003 Laurie and Molly Whitely teamed up to teach the oldest children. Amy Valens retired in 2006. Anita Collison (previously a parent meeting leader, and for many years a program aide as well as the district bus driver) took her place.
We have also had good luck retaining our other staff members. Molly Edwards has been part of the art room team since the mid 1970’s. Lanie Ross spent many years in the art room, and our current art teacher, Kristy Arroyo, attended the school as a child. Gabi Friedrich has been our movement specialist since the 1980’s. Cory Van Gelder began teaching trapeze when her children attended the program in the late 1990’s. Three of our music teachers–Sarah Whitman, Kate Munger, and Tom Finch each stayed for many years, and we have high hopes that our newest music teacher, Mika Scott will stay a long time too. This has enabled the development of strong teaching collaborations. We have had less luck keeping foreign language teachers, but continually explore ways to include Spanish in the program.
In 1974, the Open Classroom community, working together with Jay Beckwith, a well-known playground specialist, was the driving force behind designing and constructing our own kind of play structure. Built with a shoestring budget and lots of parent labor from all the programs, it has had several remodels, updated with help from all parts of the Lagunitas School District community, including Open Classroom alumni.
Over the years, parent labor has often been called upon to re-imagine and transform the pod building that houses the program into comfortable spaces best suited to current needs. Parents found ways to decrease the acoustical problems, create a separate workshop/art room, turn the library into a classroom, add a drinking fountain, not to mention solving more mundane maintenance issues, from putting in a dishwasher to building cabinets and benches, to painting and repainting our classroom furniture. Parents have been involved in all our gardening projects, including helping to build the greenhouse, cement the pond, and create our garden beds. More often than not Richard Sloan (school board member, parent and builder) had a hand in bringing these projects to fruition. The summer of 2015 will bring a major professional remodeling of our buildings, which will probably be followed by parent additions!
Our first try at a parent handbook happened around the tenth year of the program, at which time we formalized the parent participation expectation to three hours a week for the first child in the program, and developed ways to meet the requirement for families who could not participate during the school day. Parent participation has taken many forms over the years, with most families meeting classroom needs by coming to school ready to help in areas teachers designed. Often we have welcomed parents with skills or ideas of their own that have enriched the program greatly: cooks, gardeners, scientists, musicians, carpenters, artists, and people with community connections they made available to us. A whole school family overnight trip has been a tradition for many years. Some of our original parents now participate as grandparents. Some of our students return as parents, bringing a deep understanding of what this kind of education meant to them.
“Learning by doing” has always been basic to our approach. In the early years it was more possible to take long overnight field trips. Our students traveled to Baha California, the ghost town of Bodie, and participated in many Living History overnight experiences offered through the state parks. More recently we have stayed closer to home, but continue to make use of the state’s Living History projects with our older students, and to dramatize history with extensive projects at school. A major school play happens every few years that involves all ages developing it from a children’s book that is read by the entire school community. Our long involvement with the natural world around us has included building and maintaining bluebird houses, monitoring the activities of the salmon in our creeks and the swallows that nest on our buildings.
Tom Valens filmed the documentary “To Make A Difference” between 1980 and 1984, with much assistance from parents and students who manned microphones and learned some of the technical side of documentary film work. More than 200 universities and colleges used the film to explain the workings of an Open Classroom to their students.
In the 2005-6 school year Tom again documented the school, following his wife Amy’s last class. The film, called “AUGUST TO JUNE, bringing Life to School” premiered in 2011, was broadcast by many public television stations in 2013 and 2014, and also is finding its way into the collections of schools of education.