Western Individualism Alive & Well in California Boarding Schools

"A parent once said to me that The Thacher School–and by implication, all California boarding schools–is like the Galapagos Islands of boarding schools. (As we all know from junior high, the Galapagos are famous for being the place that helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution.) The parent's comparison arose because he saw California boarding schools as being fundamentally separate and removed from the traditional East Coast boarding school scene. He saw this separation as integral to providing California boarding schools the freedom and space to grow into highly unique and individualistic institutions." (Bill McMahon, Thacher School)

You won't find older, staid schools with histories longer than a century or two in California. (Some New England schools opened before California was admitted to the Union- 1850.) As California presented, and continues offering, new and fresh opportunities- drawing Americans westward over the decades through economic, political and personal opportunities, California boarding schools embody and celebrate the new, different, and changing.

In California boarding schools, families and students find serious schools that tend more toward individualism- embracing and embodying cultural diversity and encouraging of individual exploration. In conversation with several California boarding school admission directors, we consistently heard three traits that make California boarding schools special places to live and learn- distinctly different from other regions of the country.

Physical Space Physical distance and space shape California boarding schools. Derek Svennungsen, Director of Admission, Midland School independently reinforces the Galapagos islands metaphor in his observations regarding California boarding school identities:

Every boarding school I've visited in California has created its own niche, its own personality (ours–Midland School–is certainly no exception!). I think we can do this because there is so much space, and since we're somewhat distant from each other, our identities have formed without as much regard to what the next school down the street might be doing. (Derek Svennungsen, Midland)

Physical space and distance between schools limit comparison and direct competition. You can't look at your neighbor say. "I want to be like him/her." Instead, each school must find and develop identity from within itself. Each school independently answers and affirms the questions through introspection and self awareness.

Who are we; whom do we serve; what values will impart to our students; how will we impart our values and teaching and what will we make sure our students know and leave us knowing? California school have created, built, and established themselves through self exploration and focus on what each does well and what's best for their students. This self definition and exploration has cultivated a group of schools with unique, strong, clear perspectives and approaches.

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Individualism/Adventurous Spirit
The individualism found in each institution drives and extends into each school's work with students. California schools expect experiment, reaching, and exploration from their students- to find passions, understandings and the things that one does well.

I've come to believe that students who ultimately choose to attend California boarding schools are some of the most adventurous I have ever met…in the west there exists a completely different mindset regarding the path to success. (Tom Sheppard, Stevenson School)

Focusing Ones Talents
Deeply developing and practicing one's talents extends organically from individualism and adventurousness. California boarding schools boarding schools push students to practice and delve as deeply as possible in to one's talents, interests, and abilities.

Here students are encouraged to become independent minded and self reliant, to become passionate and angular instead of well rounded. (Tom Sheppard, Stevenson)

If you're painter, musician, writer, athlete, artist, singer or budding politician, a California school might prove more encouraging in your efforts to explore and push your talents to the exclusion of other pursuits. How deeply can you delve; how much can you learn; how good can you become?

Push Yourself: Experiment, Learn, and Grow

...CA boarding schools are distinct, and all offer a different path to the same outcome. Every one of the schools can legitimately say that they are stronger than the other CA schools in one particular facet, so there's a school out here for every student. Derek Svennungsen, Midland)

Distilling what we've found special about California schools comes to this thought. It seems that California schools- like a piece of journalism- want and encourage their students to develop an angle or perspective. Less concerned about well-rounded graduates, CA schools encourage students to become deeply, angular, passionate and involved in their talents or beliefs.

This is tall order. Encouraging such wide ranging difference and possible disagreement requires diversity and, most importantly, tolerance and cultivation of diversity. California schools, through their individual identities seem to have a found a medium and equilibrium through which both school and students cultivate unique, deep niches and perspectives.

At their best, California boarding schools combine the rigor and tradition of the East with the commitment to the individual, character, community and the outdoors that many value in the West. (Bill McMahon, Thacher)

Languorousness is not tolerated. Get out and do.


Read full California boarding school comments from Bill McMahon of Thacher, Tom Sheppard, Stevenson, and Derek Svennungsen, Midland at: California Boarding Schools: Call for Ideas and Contributions

AdmissionsQuest California Member Schools in California
Descriptions are quoted from each school's web site; in some cases we've reprinted or excerpted from published heads' letters as they often best distill each school's essence.

The Athenian School (Danville, CA) www.athenian.org

Athenian provides an engaging, challenging education on a beautiful 75-acre campus at the base of Mt. Diablo, located near San Francisco in Northern California... Athenian's campus encompasses 75 acres of beautiful rolling hills and wildflowers at the base of Mt. Diablo. Just 32 miles east of San Francisco, Athenian students are easily able to take advantage of extraordinary cultural, theatrical and athletic opportunities... Class size averages 15 students, and nearly 100 percent of the school's graduates gain admission to outstanding four-year colleges.

Athenian's philosophy is guided by a strong belief in the promise of young people to shape a better world. It is a vibrant educational community that not only offers an outstanding and multifaceted curriculum but also teaches young people to think critically and to approach learning with curiosity and resourcefulness. Athenian is a community that strives to uphold the ideals of democracy, responsibility and citizenship. Students are challenged intellectually, creatively, personally and socially, so that when they graduate, they are well prepared for the demands of higher education and for a life of purpose and personal fulfillment.

Athenian offers a coed boarding program for students in grades 9-12.

Dunn School (Los Olivos, CA) www.dunnschool.org

In the Dunn community, we understand that every single student arrives with certain talents and gifts. These gifts may be immediately apparent in the classroom or on the athletic field, or they may be as yet undiscovered potential, waiting to be realized in an art or music room, on top of a mountain, or behind a podium. Discovering the passion of each individual and cultivating that passion into their personal vision of the future is why we are here and what we do best.

When Tony Dunn founded this school over a half century ago, I believe he did so with values such as integrity, fairness, scholarship, and commitment in mind. To me, these values are at the heart of the Dunn School community. Combined, they define personal character and form the foundation necessary not only for college, but for a life of learning and responsible leadership in society. (Mike Beck)

Idyllwild Arts Academy (Idyllwild, CA) www.idyllwildarts.org

The Idyllwild Arts Academy welcomes talented young artists from around the world to study Dance, Film, Interdisciplinary Arts, Music, Theatre, Visual Art or Creative Writing with renowned teachers in each field. At the same time students are provided with a college preparatory academic education. Our students enjoy a very rich and diverse education in both arts and academics, and go on to some of the top colleges and conservatories in the world...

If the arts are your passion, then this where you belong.

Midland School (Los Olivos, CA) www.midland-school.org

Since 1932, Midland has been setting itself apart from typical educational models. Academics are, of course, our first priority, but our students do much more than read books and take tests. For more than 75 years, Midland has involved itself in life prep, not just college prep, and Paul and Louise Squibb would be very pleased that the little school in the woods they founded in the midst of the Depression still teaches self reliance, simplicity, and service. Calculus too.

As other schools get larger and build more buildings and create more overhead, Midland makes do with redwood classrooms and cabins, an intentional and profound educational philosophy, and a belief that students, and adults, benefit greatly by living close to nature. As our students learn to do more with less, they also live--on a daily basis--the values of independence, interdependence, and stewardship of the land. As we continue to stay close to our mission and philosophy, Midland remains a powerful antidote to society's excesses and materialism.

San Domenico School (San Anselmo, CA) www.sandomenico.org

Founded in 1850 in the Dominican tradition, San Domenico holds the distinction of being California's oldest independent Catholic school. Our Dominican heritage continues today as evidenced by the spirit of tolerance, mutual respect, compassion, and global awareness that permeates every aspect of our culture. We are also an independent Dominican school, which means we can freely choose among educational resources for curricular formation. Each day we honor our Dominican heritage by seeking truth and promoting social justice.

Set among 500 acres of wooded Marin hills, the beauty and calm of our campus helps your student concentrate and delve deeply into his emerging academic interests...

Rather than isolating subjects from one another, we teach students how ideas are interrelated, how an important mathematical concept developed in a certain historical period and led to a scientific discovery that changed social norms... Intent listening. Lively discussions. Safe spaces where participation is actually cool and leadership is built into the curriculum.

San Domenico serves boys and girls Pre-K to Grade 8 and boarding girls grades 9-12.

Southwestern Academy (San Marino, CA) www.southwesternacademy.edu

Southwestern Academy offers you something unique and special. It's more than a place to maximize your learning, explore new interests, develop new talents, and prepare for the college of your choice. It's also a place where you'll belong. Our close-knit community of students and teachers provides a warm, supportive environment and personal attention.

Maurice Veronda founded Southwestern in 1924 among acres of orange groves in San Marino, California. Forty years later, we added a campus in Rimrock, Arizona in a stunning redrock canyon. For all these years, Southwestern Academy has proudly taught, nurtured, and shaped generations of young people. Today it operates as an independent, non-profit organization under my direction.

Though much has changed at Southwestern Academy during that time, the most important things have remained constant. The caring faculty, enthusiastic staff, and active student life programs help each student find his or her place in our community. Come see for yourself how good it feels at Southwestern.

Kenneth Veronda,? Headmaster

Stevenson School (Pebble Beach, CA) www.stevensonschool.org

Today Stevenson is home to 520 students at the Pebble Beach Campus (equally divided between resident and day, boys and girls) and 210 students at the Carmel Campus. The School's motto, Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re, a favorite of General Eisenhower and written by Claudio, at 16th century Jesuit, speaks to all who live and work and learn at Stevenson: Gentle in manner, strong in deed.

President's Message
Stevenson's educational philosophy may be different from that of any other school you are considering. Our approach to education starts with you. As a student at Stevenson, you have three main responsibilities:

You are here to prepare for your college years—so work constantly to sharpen your mind, to expand your academic knowledge, and to stretch your intellectual reach.

In the meantime, remember that you are more than an academic machine. We want you to love learning and achievement—but we also want you to love the arts, nature, recreation, friends and your own evolving perspective on the world.

Respect yourself, and respect everyone else whose life touches yours. We believe that if you can meet these requirements—within an environment as beautiful as Stevenson's, and among people as intelligent and congenial as the ones here—your high school years will turn out to be more fulfilling than you had ever expected...

Joseph E. Wandke

The Thacher School (Ojai, CA) www.thacher.org

Founded in 1889, The Thacher School is a coeducational boarding high school located 85 miles northwest of Los Angeles, California. The School serves academically talented students who will benefit from a rigorous college preparatory experience. The faculty and students live and work closely together in a community in which cooperation, trust, honesty, and respect are the cornerstones of school life.

Together, we commit to the belief that demands in the academic classroom, when combined with those of mountains and horses, of sports and the arts, produce independent minds, strong bodies, and powerful character.

Those of us who live, work, and study here have willingly and purposefully joined our energies and talents in what is, in a way, an unusual sort of experience in this day and age: in this shifting world in which principles are sometimes bent to meet particular circumstances, we strive to hold strongly to the solid center that is the School's inheritance—as one alumnus called it, to be guided by a "moral compass." Together, we commit to the belief that demands in the academic classroom, when combined with those of mountains and horses, of sports and the arts, produce independent minds, strong bodies and powerful character.

Living here is not always easy. The academic and personal standards we set are high, and certain principles of action and word are non-negotiable. But there are rich and wonderful rewards in this place where students are supported by caring faculty members and by peers from widely varying backgrounds and cultures who share a vision of what true learning is: every challenge you meet enlivens your self-confidence, every perceived limit you exceed sparks your growth.

Michael K. Mulligan
Head of School

The Webb Schools (Claremont, CA) www.webb.org/admission

Webb is not your standard school. We are a close-knit boarding community of two schools – Webb School of California for boys and Vivian Webb School for girls – on a single campus. Webb offers a singular academic program for grades 9-12, in which an outstanding traditional curriculum combines with emerging knowledge, innovative methods, and advanced technology in an environment that blends the best of both single-sex and coeducational opportunities.

The Schools are dedicated to the development of young men and women of character who think unboundedly and who are committed to the highest standards of honor. Living and learning in this community creates abundant opportunities for students to discover and develop their talents, to become honor-bound leaders, and to excel both academically and socially throughout – and beyond – their Webb experience
Core Values
If you look closely at a school, you learn what that school stands for. What defines it. What makes it different. At Webb, we call these our Core Values, and every part of the Webb experience reflects our commitment and dedication to:

Respect for the formative educational differences of boys and girls. Webb's entire approach to education is guided by brain-based research about how adolescent boys and girls think, feel and act. Single-sex classes early on build confidence and improve learning. At the same time, boys and girls live, work and play in a setting where they learn to respect one another as peers.

Abundant opportunities for discovery and unbounded thinking. Whether in class, on an outing or in activities, students are encouraged to think outside the bounds of convention and to discover things for themselves. Problems are posed, questions arise, insights converge, solutions abound. Students find they are not just excelling in class, but excelling in discovery.

The highest standards of honor. Some call it ethics. Some call it integrity. Some call it responsibility. At Webb, we call it honor, and it includes all of those things, and more. Every program, every classroom, every person within the community strives for the highest levels of honesty, trust, courage, moral responsibility and respect. It's part of what makes a Webb graduate someone who can be counted on to lead with sound judgment. Someone who goes beyond the standard.

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