Getting Schooled in Santa Barbara

Exploring the Many Paths to an Education in S.B. County

Alton Carmean (left) and Brandon Kim are focused on the task at hand at the Montessori Center School.
Paul Wellman

When it comes to forging an educational path for their children, many of today’s parents have likely noticed that a lot has changed since the yellow buses, standardized tests, and Bunsen burners of their own schooling. These days, variety abounds ​— ​some of it expensive, some of it within the public system ​— ​to such an extent that parents could be excused for feeling mightily overwhelmed. To help with the sifting, consider the following articles a starter list of Santa Barbara’s vast spectrum of young-mind stimulation, from multiage classrooms to hands-on engineering to an unorthodox sports path to higher education. Choose wisely. Someday, your kids may even thank you.

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Where should I send my children to elementary school? It’s an exciting ​— ​and often anxiety provoking ​— ​question that every parent faces. There are myriad factors that influence parents’ educational choice, such as what part of the county they live in, their time commitments, their concept of what should be included in a quality education, and their individual child’s needs ​— ​some kids crave independence and quiet time to work alone, while others find comfort in the rhythm of a structured classroom environment. Within the boundaries of Santa Barbara Unified School District, there are 13 public elementary schools and 6 private or independent schools with elementary programs from which to choose. The following are a few of the education philosophies offered by a handful of area schools.

Montessori Center School

Developed by Italian physician and special education teacher Maria Montessori in the early 20th century, the Montessori method aims to foster children’s self-reliance and intellectual freedom while tapping into their natural desire to learn. Since 1965, the Montessori Center School of Santa Barbara has nurtured children’s independence, creativity, and organizational skills to create a community of self-directed learners.

Montessori parent Suzanne Cohen said the school allows her kids to explore their interests to the fullest depth “without being interrupted.” Last year, her 9-year-old son researched the Egyptian pyramids, and this year he’s working on a yearlong project exploring Chumash culture.

Classrooms “resemble more of a work-place or company than a traditional school,” said Head of School Patricia M. Colby in a prepared statement on the Montessori philosophy. With a 12:1 student-teacher ratio, the nonprofit institution teaches students via multiage grouping in which older children help younger ones master classroom tasks under the guidance of a teacher and an assistant teacher who facilitate each child’s learning pace. Students are clustered into three levels: primary (3-6 years), lower elementary (6-9 years), and upper elementary (9-12 years).

Key to Montessori’s project-based ideology are aesthetic learning objects such as colorful moveable alphabet letters and geometric blocks, which reappear at different levels of the curriculum like motifs. According to Colby, the Montessori method develops goal-oriented thinking patterns in students, preparing them for future success. Rather than letter-grade report cards, parents receive detailed narratives and written reports on their child’s progress three times a year.

The school, located on Fairview Avenue, is home to approximately 265 students, from toddler-aged to 6th grade, and belongs to a network of 4,000 American Montessori Society–accredited institutions (including the distinct Santa Barbara Montessori School on Mirano Dr.). Students interview for acceptance. Tuition is $14,900 per year from 1st to 3rd grade and $15,300 from 4th to 6th grade. Montessori offers need-based financial aid covering up to half the cost of attendance. Each family is asked to volunteer 15 hours per year.

Pictured from left, Waldorf students Rafael Grippo and Aran Dwelley practice violin while Ethan Dwelley and David Gallagher practice cello.
Paul Wellman

The Waldorf School

Founded by a group of parents in 1984, the Waldorf School of Santa Barbara borrows its educational ideology from 20th-century Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Steiner opened the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart, Germany, nearly 100 years ago. His holistic education ideology, based on his spiritual and intellectual theory of anthroposophy, is now taught to 100 children between the ages of 4 months old and 14 years old at Santa Barbara’s Waldorf School on Mirano Drive, as well as at 900 independent schools worldwide.

Each Waldorf school’s curriculum varies, depending on its parents, students, and geographical location. Enrollment Director Nita June Davanzo said that at the Santa Barbara campus, for example, students are involved with area agricultural farmers and environmental conservation. The Waldorf philosophy supports kinesthetic and artistic learning through academics interwoven with handwork and social and emotional lessons.

Steiner believed there are three seven-year stages of childhood, and the Waldorf classroom curriculum is shaped by these distinct cognitive and emotional development levels.

Students learn at a 10:1 student-teacher ratio through the imaginative outlets of drama, music, science, knitting, and poetry, among other subjects. They master division and multiplication through movement, acting out the times tables by jumping in place to count each number. They are taught reading in the 1st grade.

Rather than using textbooks, they create their own lesson books of concepts taught by the teacher. Parents and students receive oral feedback from a teacher who stays with the same group of students from 1st to 8th grade, acting as an authority figure. Midyear and end-of-the-year written evaluations take the place of grades until 6th and 7th grade.

According to Ana Maria McCombs, a parent of 6-year-old twins, Waldorf has given her children “an educational setting, even visually, that is very nurturing and calming.” McCombs praises the “tight community” of parents, and the way in which the school’s values have been a “source of [her] own growth as a parent.”

Students interview for admission and are placed according to their academic, developmental, and social needs, which may not correspond to their public-school grade level. Tuition costs $16,885 from 1st to 8th grade, and up to 50 percent tuition assistance is offered on a need basis. Each parent is asked to volunteer 20 hours per year. The school belongs to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Santa Ynez Valley Family School

Located in rural Los Olivos, the Santa Ynez Valley Family School offers a personalized, practical education to 63 students from preschool to 5th grade. The school is organized into four multiage classes, identified not by grade level but by different colored doors. The Blue Door Program is home to 5- and 6-year-old students; the Red Door to 7- and 8-year-olds; and the Purple Door Program to 9- and 10-year-olds. The Family School shares Midland School’s 2,860-acre campus.

The accredited independent school ​— ​built by a group of parents, Midland teachers, and other area professionals in 1974 ​— ​follows a workshop-based academic philosophy, in which skills are taught to the group and students practice to their own ability while receiving individual assistance from their teacher at a 12:1 student-teacher ratio from 2nd to 5th grade. Little homework ​— ​known as “independent work” at the Family School ​— ​is given, and much of that work is completed in class. Report cards come in the form of narrative evaluations and continuum checklists.

Curriculum focuses on building life skills, called Habits of Mind, such as collaboration, stewardship, and acceptance, alongside academics. Head of School and Red Door teacher Julianne Tullis-Thompson said she enjoys having the freedom to modify her classroom and daily activities to meet the needs of each group of students. If her class gets excited about geology, she will spend more time exploring the topic with them. “At our school, every teacher knows every kid,” said Tullis-Thompson.

Tuition runs $13,020 per year from kindergarten to 1st grade and $15,068 per year for the rest of elementary school. Need-based tuition assistance may cover up to 75 percent of the fees. Parents volunteer their time during two workdays each year and other events.

Carolina Alcaraz’s kindergarten students are ready to learn at Adelante Charter School.
Paul Wellman

Adelante Charter School

Five years ago, César Estrada Chávez Charter School, a dual-language-immersion elementary school, became Adelante Charter School and adopted a 90:10 two-way immersion method between Spanish and English. At Adelante, 90 percent of instruction is given in Spanish from kindergarten to 1st grade. Instruction time in English gradually increases until 5th and 6th grade, when class is taught equally in Spanish and English. Principal Juanita Hernandez said this allows Adelante’s 265 students to become bilingual, biliterate, and multicultural. “Kids learn to be accepting of different cultures,” Hernandez said.

In addition to language, Adelante’s curriculum focuses on STEAM— science, technology, engineering, art, and math — at a 24:1 student-teacher ratio, according to Hernandez. Children assume a hands-on approach to science and art. As Hernandez said, each classroom features written and visual information on the walls that was created by students. As Adelante is a nonprofit public charter school, students receive grades, take state tests, and are given report cards after each trimester.

The school curriculum is based on the educational ideology of Boston University professor Charles L. Glenn, who said, “a school in which two languages are used without apology and where becoming proficient in both is considered a significant intellectual and cultural achievement.” Under the school’s philosophy, each student is taught as a second-language learner.

If more families apply than the school can serve, incoming kindergarten students are selected via a February lottery before the new school year (district students receive an extra entry in the lottery). Students who transfer in after 1st grade must meet a certain level of proficiency in each language.

Each family is asked to volunteer five hours per month. Parents who can’t give their time can make a donation within their means. The bilingual school, located next to Franklin Elementary School on East Yanonali Street, offers resources for Spanish- and English-speaking parents.

Garden Street Academy students (from left) Lulia, Aiden, Samuel, and Christian complete classwork.
Paul Wellman

Garden Street Academy

First established in 1936 as the Catholic San Roque School, the school had its lease taken over by the San Roque Charitable Trust in 2002, and the newly founded academy was moved to its Garden Street campus three years later. Now, Garden Street Academy provides a personalized academically rigorous plan to each student at an 8:1 student-teacher ratio. The nonprofit independent school uses a multiage program in its K-8 Lower School ​— ​each grade partners with the grade above it until 8th grade, which is taught separately.

The school’s project-based philosophy integrates the arts, sciences, and letters programs, encouraging students to share their work through diverse media, said co-deans Kristi Dichard and Jessica Sanford. Garden Street’s interdisciplinary ideology culminates each year in a drama production written, directed, designed, and acted by students. While preparing for the play, students also study the cultural significance of its subject matter.

When Stephanie Christoff’s 5th-grade daughter learned about world explorers, her class created an open house for parents. Students showcased a handmade replica of their explorer, cooked 13th-century food, and made old-fashioned advertisements encouraging settlers to come to the Americas. “They really emphasize authentic learning,” Christoff said.

For the 83 students in Lower School, biannual descriptive reviews and student-led conferences take the place of letter grades. Students receive homework based on their individual needs. Lower School tuition is $15,000 per year for K-5 students. Need-based and merit scholarships may cover up to all fees. Families must volunteer for 60 hours per year, with special projects available for working parents.

Open Alternative School

Established in 1975​— ​largely by the efforts of one innovative educator, the now-deceased Gwen Phillips ​— ​the Open Alternative School is based on a holistic education model that prepares 140 students from transitional kindergarten to 8th grade to be active community members. At the public school, democratic values of community service and social justice are interwoven into the curriculum. The school’s philosophy teaches conflict-resolution skills as well as values of respect, tolerance, and compassion, which prepare students to live in a multicultural world.

Traditional academic subjects like social studies, language arts, and math are generally taught to multiage classes through projects and outdoor excursions. In this way, the school strives to make learning personal and valuable to each student. Under Open Alternative’s philosophy, if students are empowered, inspired, and hopeful, they will be able to form a healthy and positive global outlook.

Every year, each class puts on a musical led by professional directors, and students and parents collaborate on set design and costume making. Through creative expression and shared decision-making, it is believed children become self-motivated and assume responsibility for their own learning experience.

Composed of six classrooms and a library, Open Alternative is the smallest school in the Santa Barbara Unified School District. It is located behind La Colina Junior High School on Foothill Road. The school works by an open classroom policy in which parents regularly volunteer in class to support the teachers and increase the ratio of students to adults.


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