The Lagunitas School District is celebrating the 50-year anniversary of its “open classroom” program on Saturday in a milestone educators consider both joyful and bittersweet.
With enrollment declining and increasing competition for new students in West Marin, those who love the storied program admit it might need some creative tweaks to entice a new generation of parents seeking a progressive but robust education for their children.
“There’s always room for reinvention and renaissance,” said retired Lagunitas teacher Amy Valens, an organizer of Saturday’s event. The celebration from noon to 4 pm at the school will feature music, food and lots of reunions.
“I’m not saying that open classroom is done,” Valens said. “But we have to rethink how we do progressive education in public schools at this particular junction.”
A decision on the structure of the program could come as early as this month. School officials have conducted a community survey and will hold a forum for parents at 6:30 pm May 23 to gather more feedback.
“We are facing a challenging time at Lagunitas,” Laura Shain, the school’s principal, wrote in a newsletter for parents last week. “The survey and informal conversation with parents this past year show that there are significant concerns about our current structure — including the limited social opportunities some students have in smaller classes separated by our two programs.”
One of the ideas is to combine the open classroom, which covers the elementary grades in a multi-age fashion, with the district’s other elementary school structure, a Montessori program.
“I love it, because of the respect that teachers have for kids,” said Poppy Henderson, 11, a sixth-grader in the open-classroom program. “The relationship that teachers have with students is amazing.”
John Carroll, the school district’s superintendent, said the open classroom and Montessori program are similar in that they group children from various grades together. The difference is that the Montessori students stick together and do activities as a group, while the open classroom students have more freedom to collaborate with other students or groups, he said.
“They have more in common than they do differences,” he said.
With only seven students registered so far in the Montessori kindergarten class for the fall, and only one student registered for the open classroom kindergarten, a merger with Montessori program could address parents’ worries about their children not having enough friends in class, Shain said.
Shain said that when she came to the district 11 years ago, there were three “robust” elementary programs and more than 300 students in the district, which also has a middle school. Now enrollment is 183, with 44 students in the open classroom program, 53 in Montessori and 86 in the middle school, she said.
The district’s board of trustees could vote on a plan for the 2022-23 school year at its meeting on May 25, Shain said.
To add to the program structure debate, there are staffing issues, both at Lagunitas and at the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District.
Carroll, who is also superintendent of the Bolinas-Stinson district, is running for Marin superintendent of schools in the June 7 primary elections. Trustees for both districts are developing contingency plans in case Carroll wins and they have to find a replacement by January.
The Lagunitas district also lost its chief business officer, Jeff Lippstreu, when he died April 12 from a heart attack. Lip Litter was one of three “pillars” of the district administration — along with Shain and Carroll, Shain said.
Despite the uncertainties facing the school, Carroll said he is hearing “a lot of parent contentment as well” about both the open classroom and the Montessori structure.
“I think there’s anxiety around having two programs, and not enough students to make them viable, vibrant schools,” he said. “But we have enough to run school next year.”
Carroll added a merger was not necessarily a foregone conclusion — although things “were still up in the air” on that question.
“Given the numbers, I think we can find a way to keep what we value about both programs — open classroom and Montessori — at least for a short time until the numbers come back up,” he said.
Carroll said his main concern is that “we checked with three local preschools, and there just aren’t a lot of little kids living here right now.”
The district is also facing pressure from Ross Valley Charter School in Fairfax. The charter school, which has been enabled by state law to collect per-student fees from the public school district where a student lives, is actively recruiting in the Lagunitas district, according to Lagunitas trustee Richard Sloan.
“They put up flyers in our post office,” Sloan said of the charter school, which enrolled and billed the district for 14 Lagunitas-area students in the current school year.
Defenders of the open classroom model say there is nothing like it, according to testimonials posted from alumni families at lagunitasopenclassroom.com
“When Carol and I found a school program that actually placed emphasis on kids learning how to communicate, how to work together and how to plan their own way through each school day, I felt without a doubt that this program was where we wanted our children to spend their elementary school years,” said trustee Steve Rebscher, a former school parent, in one of the online testimonials.
Former teacher John Kaufman, who worked in the open classroom from 1985 to 2001, said it was like being an unofficial mayor of a small community in which the students were his citizens.
“I had my responsibilities, and they had their responsibilities too,” said Kaufman, who still volunteers regularly at the school’s lush garden, koi pond and chicken and rabbit grove that he helped build.
“The students are not just small beings that you feed information to,” he said. “They are people and deserve a voice.”
Kaufman said the new generation of parents will have to come to see the benefits of a democratic model as opposed to the traditional classroom structure.
“We expect students to participate in a healthy way in a democracy, but they don’t do that as children in school,” he said.
For the original founders, open classroom was a way involve the child and the parents in the educational process, said Anita Collison, who teaches a fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade combined class in the program.
Parents also participate, with one mother teaching a regular cooking class and another teaching art.
“It was really about having the kids be part of their own education,” Collison said.
According to Kaufman, open classroom speaks to “the idea of a classroom as a community.”
“Beyond reading and writing, the students also need to learn how to deal with conflicts, how to process their emotions and how to communicate,” Kaufman said. “It’s just feeling like they are not only part of the community, but that they have an obligation not only to take from the community but to give back to the community.”