“It doesn’t matter how old you are, even if you are a little kid, you can still take action to improve the world around you.” That is the message of the Community Learning Center (CLC) as told to me by former students, parents and teachers.
“Every child is encouraged and supported in trying to find what special gift each has to give to the world,” explained Kathie Reynolds-Housden, one of the first teachers of this alternative program, now housed at Top of the World Elementary. Beginning in 1982 parents and teachers (Etta Mooser, Anita Dobbs and Dan Foster) explored what alternative education could mean and developed a proposed program. When they presented the plan to the Board of Education, it was so controversial that the meeting was held in the high school auditorium. Nevertheless it passed 3-2 and CLC was launched.
The program began in 1983 with one teacher, Ellen Tanney Fisher, leading 30 children from kindergarten to fourth grade in what was called the tree house, which no longer exists, at the edge of the high school campus above Nita Carman Park. The following year a second teacher, Reynolds-Housden, was added so that 40 students total could be enrolled. The program was moved to its present TOW location.
The school is rooted in the concept of different intelligences, that each child has his or her own way of learning. As explained by Reynolds-Housden, author of “The School with Gentle Eyes, Adventures of a Multigraded Program” that recounts the experiences of CLC, the basis of the school is kindness applied to relationships, peace-making, collaboration, and the environment. The fundamentals of elementary school are successfully taught within this context.
CLC could be compared to the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse because of the combined grade levels, except it’s not just the teacher and the kids in those classrooms. A key feature is that parents actively participate in the classroom every day, as well as contribute to the program by sharing their special expertise. “We really get to know all the kids,” parent Barbara McMurray explained. “For example, we drive them on field trips instead of taking busses. We get to spend the day with them and talk about what we’ve seen.”
Derek Ostensen, a CLC graduate, puts it this way, “It was like having 20 moms and 20 dads. The teachers and parents provided models for us every day. I can’t give enough credit to the parents and teachers who put in all the work, had the courage to go to the board, saying ‘We want something more profound for our kids.’ CLC was, without a doubt, one of the pivotal influences in my life. It encourages collaborating, instills community bonds, reinforces the 100-year old ethos of Laguna. It made me part of a bigger picture, took me out of the tunnel vision kids tend to have.”
Ostensen and his classmates were among the 6,000 people who demonstrated to preserve Laguna Canyon in 1989. The class presented “a song we practiced for weeks” at the huge gathering at the end of the walk. The demonstration resulted in the negotiations with the Irvine Company that ultimately saved the canyon open space. Ostensen’s passion and gifts were unfolding. Now he is president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation and an expert in conservation land use planning and acquisition.
At this month’s meeting of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, Hallie Jones, the new executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, presented the foundation’s programs for education and protection of the open space. Jones grew up here, but comes to this position after years with Heal the Bay in Santa Monica.
In the audience was Jones’ former teacher, Kathie Reynolds-Housden, all aglow. Jones, too, was a CLC student, another one who has found her gift and is here to generously and skillfully contribute to the community that nourished her in the program so many years ago.
“The program is incredible at encouraging healthy respect for people and the world around,” Jones adds. “Part of my love for open space and environment comes from there. CLC is about connections—between people and the community. I want that for my daughter.”
Jones’ daughter and Anita Dobbs’ grandson are next generation CLC students. Parent volunteer Laura Sauers introduced me to the classrooms of current CLC teachers, Cheryl Beehan and Laia Hansen. As I observed the classes, instead of just seeing groups of young children, I was looking at them as miniature Dereks or Hallies. What marvelous thoughts and gifts could be unfolding as their lives get underway.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.