Teaching to the ‘whole person’

Santa Lucia School Director and teacher Shirley Magnusson instructs students in the outdoors, something that happens frequently throughout the school day. The school received a fresh coat of paint and colorful tiles around the doors and windows over the summer. (Photo contributed)

Santa Lucia School continues its holistic, nature-based, peace education curriculum

Santa Lucia School isn’t teaching to the test, in fact, they don’t have “formal” tests.

Santa Lucia’s “learn at your own pace” approach — based on Montessori and Waldorf schools — has been the hallmark of the small, rural school in Templeton since its founding 33 years ago by Jan Thompquist.

“Fundamentally this school is about teaching to the whole person — holistic education,” said school director and teacher Shirley Magnusson. “That has many meanings to many people, but I think everybody gets the whole person.”

Instead of tests, the first- through eighth-grade school with an enrollment of 48 have regular parent conferences but they are not framed around grades.

“There is certainly evaluation if you would, and feedback to the children but we don’t do formal testing, we don’t do standardized testing,” Magnusson said. “We don’t give grades as a straight form of information. It’s more descriptive in terms of what skills have been developed and what criteria might we use to help parents understand the learning trajectory that a child is in.”

Magnusson was brought on by the school’s board two years ago after Thompquist retired. Magnusson spent the majority of her 35-year career within the public school system as a teacher and a teacher-educator at universities.

“When I learned about this opportunity I was drawn to it,” said Magnusson, who is grateful for the board’s support.

The board of the independent, private school is made up of people with children at the school or that had children attend the school in the past.

“We have a terrific board. I could not imagine this kind of role without this group of dedicated board members — just a terrific resource,” Magnusson said.

The school has three main buildings. All received a fresh coat of green paint and colorful tiles used as trim around doors and windows over the summer. The buildings sit in the middle of several acres.

The main building houses two classrooms for first through sixth grades. The center building has special art spaces and a storeroom. The third building is for the middle school grades — seventh and eighth.

There are multiple grades in each classroom. Each classroom is large and inviting with a homey feel and allows room for what is called “circle.”

“In the sense of community in a classroom, we bring students together in a circle literally, because that engenders a sense of community,” Magnusson said. “Sometimes the circles are separate for each class and sometimes they are combined.”

Having a mix of grades and ages in the classroom allows children to work ahead if they are comprehending the material. Students are encouraged to work with one another.

“The notion is it enables the teacher to have much more flexibility in allowing children to develop at their own rates and if you just have a very narrow age of child it’s harder to do that,” Magnusson said. “It has a family sense in that everyone is helping everyone, we are not all the same age, but we can be learning sometimes the same things, sometimes different things, it can all work out.”

There is a full-time certified teacher in each classroom and a full-time instructional aide. Students attend school Monday through Thursday and the school day runs from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Several times throughout the day teachers will instruct the class outside.

“Having an outdoor space is critical, we all love the outdoors,” Magnusson said. “It just gives a whole different cast to what schooling is about — we have periods of rest, periods of intense concentration and periods of fun and frivolity, so we build that mix into our school day.”

The school property backs up to a creek that runs along its western boundary with a small stage in the corner.

At the front of the property are several outdoor education spaces, including a large play area and a couple of gardens that are always “developing.”

“We have some new spaces that are developing and I do think of our land and our facilities as being in development lets say always,” Magnusson said. “As an educator, we are lifelong learners and the world is always changing so our opportunities for the students to learn have to always be changing.”

In one of the outside spaces, children are free to use natural objects to make things, take them apart and remake them, sometimes borrowing items from their neighbors.

“One of the things that happen here is the children have to be OK with and understand that whatever you create and form is temporary,” Magnusson said. “That’s a value of how things could work in the world.”

The school’s academic focus also includes doing a fair amount with the arts in the center building, which houses a pottery studio with a kiln. The school also features a music program.

While much of the arts curriculum is purely creative, it is also tied back to what is being studied. For instance, last year, students were learning about the human kidney and part of their classes involved forming a kidney in clay.

Through this exercise, Magnusson said, the students had to pay better attention to the structures of the kidney because they were forming it in the clay.

“Arts are creative ways for humans to express,” Magnusson said. “And they can express creative ideas with that or can express information with that.”

Next door to the pottery studio is a room with looms and other art tools, such as brushes for painting, and silkscreening. Students work in the pottery studio at least twice a month.

While test-taking is not a high priority at the school, Magnusson knows that it’s going to come into play for students, especially those that go on to attend a public high school. The seventh and eighth-grade classroom has the most technology of any of the classes.

“Somethings happen more with test kind of situations in here, with some grade-like kind of feedback,” Magnusson said. “And the good news that I was pleased to hear from students, who have gone beyond now, and many of them are past college and have wonderful careers, and what not, they feel like they have been very well prepared. What I hear most frequently is the students feel like the school prepares them to be good thinkers. And then being good thinkers they can navigate the public school system.”

Seeing students succeed after attending San Lucia School, Magnusson is hopeful that other schools would integrate some or all of what they and others like them are doing.

“Not that everybody wants this particular thing, but the notion that we could have lots of different kinds of spaces that are fundamentally about honoring what we know about human development, the whole person,” Magnusson said.

Santa Lucia School is located at 1460 Plum Orchard Lane, Templeton. For more information, call 805-434-2217 or visit online www.santaluciaschool.org.

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