Gwen Phillips: 1934-2014

Gwen Phillips
Courtesy Photo

The children of Santa Barbara have lost a true champion of educational innovation with the passing of Gwen Phillips. She dedicated her life to empowering, enriching, and defending public school children’s education. Although Gwen started her teaching career with the Santa Barbara School District in 1955, her passion and vision to establish an alternative public school 40 years ago was the culmination of a long career of establishing a classroom based on the principles of open education. During a sabbatical to study the alternative education movement as theorized by the likes of Herb Kohl, A.S. Neill, and John Holt, Gwen and a group of interested students, parents, teachers, and community members proposed the establishment of the Open Alternative School (OAS). Gwen’s endless hours and dedication resulted in OAS opening for enrollment in the fall of 1975.

Basing the organization of the school on a democratic leadership model, Gwen taught the older class while sharing decision-making with the community of students, parents, and teachers. Hands-on project-based learning, work experience, environmental study trips, student- and parent-taught choice classes, and community projects as learning opportunities all provided an experience in education that is fondly remembered by hundreds of Santa Barbara community families.

Gwen looked to the students to tell her what they wanted to learn, and she designed innovative projects around student interests. Her passions included the environmental movement, and she lovingly shared her awe and appreciation of the desert, Sierras, and Santa Barbara habitats when she accompanied her students on environmental study trips. Gwen knew how to look at nature, and she taught her students to look and listen to it, as well. Her “quiet and alone” journaling assignments provided reflection and a contemplative time for her young naturalists.

When the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres was designing a trail guide for the Aliso Canyon trail out of the Sage Hill Campground, Gwen’s class extensively studied the riparian and chaparral habitats, camped at Sage Hill for the week, and laid out each marker of historical, ecological, and cultural significance. Students became writers, artists, publicists, and stewards of this small canyon. The final product was long used by trail hikers to enrich their understanding of a treasured little creek and canyon which feeds into the Santa Ynez River.

Prior to even arriving at their campsite, the students planned their own meals and tenting arrangements based on student-designed planning groups. Gwen kept them on the right track using her years of outdoor education and knowledge. With her great networking skills, Gwen arranged visits for her students with naturalists from area colleges, Forest Service personnel, Chumash elders, and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden staff. The students became experts. Empowering students to design their learning, she created a community of learners. Every opinion and skill was important. Her multiage classes created a family of learners, including parents who taught classes and provided support philosophically and physically.

One can multiply the lessons of the Aliso Canyon trail project by tens of others: Death Valley, Mt. Whitney, her beloved Alabama Hills, Owen’s Valley, Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Indian Creek, Pendola, and countless other destinations. And one can be assured that her former students have never forgotten to carry the torch of environmental stewardship.

Gwen supported her fellow teachers and applauded creative freedom to design curriculum and inviting classrooms. She held herself and others to high expectations by always putting her students first while making learning exciting, innovative, challenging, and accessible to all learners. Most importantly, Gwen devoted time each school day to her student’s emotional and social growth. Based on the work of Dr. William Glasser, core group class meetings involved the students forming circles with their peers and discussing problems, issues, concerns, and appreciations. Supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, negotiating, accepting responsibility, and designing choices for future interactions became her trademark of classroom management. These skills last a lifetime, and Gwen never let a day pass without a circle time with her students.

An amazing teacher, Gwen loved playing the piano and teaching singing. After retiring in 2008, she continued to teach OAS chorus. She loved her artistic endeavors of photography, ceramics, and stained glass. Hiking, camping, and spending time with family and friends were her loves. With her lab Hunter by her side (just one of many dogs in her lifetime), Gwen passed on December 21, 2014, at dawn of the winter solstice, surrounded by loved ones in her Mission Canyon home near Skofield Park.

A gathering to honor and celebrate Gwen Phillips’s life and her legacy of 40 years at Open Alternative School will be held at Skofield Park on Saturday, February 21, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., with a gathering core group circle at noon. Bring a potluck dish to share. Additional loving memories can be read at, and added to, Open Alternative School on Facebook.


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