• Our School's History

    Black and White Oak Tree

    The history of Valley Oaks School follows here.  It was written on 10/31/2015, by a highly esteemed founding teacher, Irene Collins, who retired.  She has a masters degree from UC Davis in science and taught science for VOS.


    Valley Oaks School started very small and, basically, on an experimental basis in 1991.  The teachers were Carroll McKay Albertson and Danny Bever. Carroll worked with high school and middle school students, while Danny worked with elementary school kids. Shortly after, I joined them.  

    The "school" at that time was just a program and located in a portable next to San Antonio Continuation High School, where the first building of VO is now.  Actually, it was not even the whole building, as part was used to store soda pop and sundry supplies for San Antonio. The bathroom and copier, etc., were at San Antonio. The focus was on kids who needed to do independent study in the school district, primarily due to being at risk for a variety of reasons, needing to work, or having issues at school. Some had been homeschooled, as VO was seen as a viable alternative by the parents.  I imagine this was why the elementary school kids were there. As now, the kids had to be able to perform the mandatory hours of work each week, keep their appointments, and be able to work on their own, whether with parental help or without. I say without, as we have always had students who were actually the mainstay of the family, helping the parent, rather than vice versa.  The work was part-time, with a set number of hours per week. As the school population grew, the hours increased. The original principal was Bill Anderson, who was also the principal of San Antonio. Chuck Cadman was Superintendent of Schools. Both were very supportive of the program and, as I recall, were instigators of the school, along with Tom Joynt, who later became director of alternative ed.

    We divided up the classes by our specialties. I taught science class and math, while Carroll taught English, US History, Govt., and Econ.  We added electives as well, and after checking what other I.S. schools did, we figured out how to do P.E. Curriculum followed that of other district schools, with one significant difference in that we insisted that ALL work for the class be completed before credit was given.  Thus, a student doing excellent work but not completing the entire class might get an "A" but only 3 or 4 credits rather than the full five. The rest would then be completed next semester. This came as a shock to some students, for, as you know, not all classes move at the same speed, and it is not unusual for kids to get a full semester’s credit without the full semester's work being finished.  (This was a policy of Valley Oaks and vital to justify that independent study really worked. We were quite pleased when one of the Petaluma High teachers said to us: "E. is a great student. The only problem I have is that she insists on finishing her experiments before leaving, even as the next class is coming in.") We did find that some classes did not work well on I.S., and sent students back to the high schools for chem and physics, as the labs needed direct supervision, more than we could do in an hourly appointment each week.  Students could come in for extra help, but there was little formal time for this until later. Also, sending chemicals home was not feasible for a variety of safety reasons. Other classes, like Foods could work well, with students bringing in samples and discussing methods and results. Life sciences were also basically easy to do independently, though we did adjust the curriculum here and in a number of classes not only to provide better monitoring but also to reflect the ability of the students to expand learning by using community resources and conduct individual research.

    We had an advantage over many I.S. programs due to district support, which gave us a good budget for texts and materials.  Also, we all had taught in the district and had good contacts with many of the teachers. (Besides which, both Carroll's and my kids went to district schools--mine to Petaluma Junior and High, hers to Kenilworth and Casa, which gave us further contacts.)  So, we were able to get additional materials and information, be included in-district meetings and workdays, and work out placing students in particular classes for electives such as music.) We had another advantage over regular schools in that we could get texts specifically geared to our needs, as we did not have to order large class sets, although we also used standard texts, particularly for college prep classes.  We did write up--and receive--some grants, and, in the very beginning of the program, when we were expanding more than the budget, Carroll and I did go down to the book depository at Hamilton Field. That was a memorable experience, as the field was already basically closed and being turned over to developers, although there was a small military HQ remaining. We drove down after work, worked our way through the darkened base (few lights), found living beings, and got keys to the building with all the books, which was a good way from the headquarters building.  So, there we were, on a dark, rainy night, just us, the largely vacant buildings, our flashlights, and the deer. Finally got in, but maintenance had not been the greatest, the lights barely worked and tended to flicker, and there were leaks. We did find a good number of books we needed in good condition, especially algebra texts for some reason, but to say the experience was a bit creepy is an underestimate. We felt like characters in the old Nancy Drew mysteries. Still, it was helpful and at the time (and even much later) many I.S. programs depended on actually COPYING pages to give students (no texts to hand out) and minimal support.

    We also were sent to various successful programs in Marin and the East Bay to learn how they functioned, as well as conferences on I.S. This not only gave us a new perspective for the future but also for how to arrange our future buildings, as the district really did plan to expand I.S. I have to say the support we got under our Superintendent Cadman and, later, Carl Wong, as well as the principals we had, was excellent, and we also had a pretty free hand in devising how things should go. Carroll and I and, later, Sara, did spend quite a lot of time going over I.S. protocols and regulations.

    Enrollment kept on increasing.  We started out primarily with high school students and a few junior high kids, along with an elementary school contingent, primary homeschooled kids, as I recall. Danny left, and Ellen Beeler took over the elementary school kids, joined later by June Nason.  The later also worked with junior high and some high school students. The focus there was much more directed having considerable parental input, particularly for the elementary schoolers. Kim Ryder came into work with the junior high kids and changed the focus to more group work, which seemed to work better at that age level.  Thus, those kids came in more often, with both individual and group sessions. Carroll and I worked with high school students, with June taking up some kids for English as we got more and more students. We got furniture--new desks, chairs, file cabinets. When we first got our new desk chairs, the portable was small enough and crowded enough that, once, when Carroll pushed away from the files, she nearly rolled out the door.  We did our own record-keeping and secretarial work, turning everything over to the appropriate school for recording keeping and report cards. (Later, when we got our first genuine secretary, Cleta Wood, we learned all the errors we made as secretaries!) Somewhere along the line, we came up with the appointment board, for we needed a way to keep track of the growing student population.

    We continued to share a principal with San Antonio.  After Bill Anderson retired, Tom Joynt took over, then Carol Treu.  By this time, Carroll and I were racking up so many hours that the district decided to change us to full-time employees. (Our administrators really pushed for this as well.) Finally, we got our very own principal, Paul Elkema.  Paul really had the "magic touch". With him in charge, things really progressed. We got our own buildings by 1996 and our very own bathroom. We picked out colors, arrangement, and furniture. By 1999 the buildings were basically like now; landscaping followed, with staff and parents pitching in.  One parent owned a landscaping company, donated materials; and other help came from the National Guard (our neighbor), as I recall. June worked some gardening into her elementary and junior high curriculum. Jon Day took over the junior high (now middle school) kids when Kim left, although he had worked with her already.   In the late ’90s, Sara Duggan came to work with math and English and Karen Sanders came over from San Antonio to teach English, govt., econ, and some electives. Marie Park became our long-time secretary, recorder, greeter--you name it! We designed more and more elective curriculum as our populations expanded too and our population changed to include many very motivated and talented students who either "did not fit the mold" or needed the time to further their acting, dance, or other activities.  We did do some summer school classes. Initially, these were at Petaluma High, in a portable, and necessitated moving a great deal of material. (One of those years we were overwhelmed, Carroll especially, as a hefty percentage of Petaluma High and Casa students had not believed that they could not graduate without passing govt. and econ. We had to hire another teacher, in fact.) Eventually, we could work summer school at VO, but I don't know if this continued, as budget cuts reduced summer programs.

    I do have to mention that the original focus of the school really changed, insofar as high school students are concerned, particularly as we expanded under Paul Eelkema. The shift was much more towards academically or creatively inclined students, and away from strictly at-risk kids, although we continued to serve those as well.  We did find that students had to be motivated to succeed, as they really did have to put out considerable effort. Most of our later students went on to college, either the J.C. or four-year schools. The junior high kids are always a special group. A few really could work on their own, but many needed extra sessions, hence the group work that Kim and Jon initiated. Often, this group consisted of quite a number of kids who had difficulty adjusting to junior high, especially socially.

    Later, Paul moved on to the District Office; Mike Roa, who had stepped in as assistant principal, took over, followed by David Putney, who was also principal at San Antonio.  Again, this was probably due to budget cuts, but we also felt it reflected a change in attitude towards I.S. when Greta became Superintendent. We started the accreditation process under Paul, completed it under Dave Putney.  Before leaving, I spent much of my time working on writing up material for this and working less with students. We were one of the first, if not the only, I.S. school in California, as far as I know, to be accredited by the high school board, and they did not know quite how to deal with us.  This really was a feather in our caps, as was gradual acceptance by more and more "regular" school teachers of our role in education, being presenters at a major I.S. conference, and having two Japanese educator groups come visit us to see how our methods worked.

    Added notes:
    In the Fall of 2003, Sandie Brosius then took over Jon Day’s position and Nora Parker came in to take up science for Irene Collins. In Spring 2004, Moneca Halsey took over for the late Karen Saunders’ whose death was a huge loss for us.  In the Fall of 2004, Terese Abelli-Amen was added to the staff to teach English and math.  Many additional changes have happened since these events and Valley Oaks School continues to grow and develop and improve.