Interview with Wendy Xa – Head of School Pacific Discovery School in Mill Valley

When Pacific Discovery School opens it doors to new students in the hills of Mill Valley this Fall, I've been told it will be unlike any other school in Marin. It’s offering something that most parents could really get on board with - a place where their child feels happy, confident and inspired to learn. An Open House is planned for Saturday, April 7th from 1pm-3pm at 70 Lomita Drive, Mill Valley campus but I didn't want to wait. The story of this new school intrigued me so, I caught up with Founder and Head of School, Wendy Xa, to learn more about the curriculum and why she decided to open a new TK-8 school in Marin.

What distinguishes the daily activities for a child attending Pacific Discovery School vs. other public and private schools in the Bay Area? 

When we began to conceptualize Pacific Discovery School, we approached the learning model with this quote from John Dewey in mind: "The self is not ready made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action." How can we, as a school, constructively and positively contribute to the personal and intellectual growth of our students? Through much research and our own experiential learning process, we have understood that our children learn best when inspired by their own curiosity and when they feel understood and connected. Our school seeks to honor the gifts each student brings to the table, and continually challenge them to new levels of mastery.

How can we honor the gifts of each child and continually challenge them to new levels of mastery?

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1. Integrative Academics & Customized Learning Plans

First we recognize the simple fact that no two children are the same. Assessments are essential to revealing and defining the needs and level of each child and customized learning plans will be key to a child’s success. Our Block Class Scheduling will allow for student mobility in both Math and English Language Arts, presenting opportunities to blend age and academic levels into one class. Our Block Scheduling would make it possible for a 1st grader to attend a 3rd grade Math class, for example. Further, students will experience an integrative curriculum including English and other Language Arts, Math, Science (STEM), Humanities, Outdoor Education, Art, Music, and Physical Education. We are dedicated and determined to foster and support curriculum, which will unfurl self-connected young people, passionate individuals who have begun, through awareness, to discover the threads from which their cloth is woven. 

2. Outdoor Education

Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).
— Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

Science has revealed unsurprisingly that time in nature has significant health benefits, thereby strengthening the social and emotional well-being of our students. Time in nature has, perhaps more surprisingly, also been proven to ameliorate academic outcomes, through enhancing focus and attention, increasing enthusiasm and engagement in learning, and augmenting critical thinking and creativity. We are embracing that knowledge in the same way that we are embracing brain science to influence our curriculum. Through foundational activities, our students will feel alive in their connection to nature, organically develop stewardship over the land they will come to know, as they tap into and hone their naturalist intelligence.

3. Collaborative Learning (Harkness® Method)

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Collaboration and respect are at the core of being able to explore big ideas deeply and critically. Collaboration leads to deeper learning, while respect nurtures our students ability to listen compassionately, to understand empathically, and to ultimately present and challenge ideas. Students start by working in small groups and pairs, then graduate to seminar tables for student-centered discussion tackling and debating big ideas. We meet children where they are and help to guide and cultivate the courage to push through to new levels of self-discovery.

4. Small Class Sizes

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Intimate, specialized and nurturing class sizes (maximum ratio of 12:1) are a cornerstone of our school. Our teachers will have space and time to understand and connect with each individual child. Small class sizes allow our teachers, administrators and staff to observe what will inspire a child's curiosity, the gifts they bring to the table, and then use that knowledge to challenge them in their journey to know and understand the world around them. We will look for each child's edges: the edge of their comfort zone, the edge of their awareness, the edge of their knowledge, the edge of their experience, and push them beyond their edges, and then help them to reflect on and process their experience.

Do you offer before and after school care or enrichment activities?

We do provide before and after-school care for those parents who need more flexibility and support. As far as activities, we already have on board, a well-known Tae Kwan Do master, whose dojo currently resides in our building. To further develop our after-school activities, we will be surveying the student body and letting their interests lead this programming. Currently, we have interest in developing a computer coding class, additional language arts classes, including Mandarin, private music lessons, and cooking classes.

Can you tell me more about your background and your journey to create the Pacific Discovery School?

My children have inspired my journey tremendously as an educator. In fact, I would go so far to say that my journey to begin the Pacific Discovery School began the day I gave birth, thirteen years ago. Since that wonderful day, I have been on the hunt for the right school for my children. I actually started my first school Presidio Knolls School to address, what I viewed as a gaping need, for my children to be in a progressive Mandarin Immersion program. And I was struck by how many kids had needs that even a progressive immersion school was unable to meet. I came to two conclusions. The first was that these children had deep layers of multiple intelligences (as defined by Howard Gardner, a renown Harvard Professor of Education) that had never fully been tapped into within the traditional school setting. Secondly, the only way for teachers to educate and thus for students to develop a love of learning, was through connection. 

The journey to create Pacific Discovery School is our way of meeting the needs of our youth in these two critical areas. The work we have done to date to get this school off the ground, has been extremely meaningful for myself and my colleagues, and we are very excited to start classes in the Fall.

Why did you start Pacific Discovery School and why now?

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Reflecting on this question, I definitely feel like our story is one built on connection. We want to change the stereotype of the bored child in school and build a school that will engage the learner in all of us. From my experience with Presidio Knolls School, the message was loud and clear, that to do that, kids would need to feel connected to their teachers, to their peers, and to the subject matter – so a program geared towards fully tapping into the nine multiple intelligences. This is a tall order, but well worth the effort. When we teach to the Common Core, we are really only lighting up a small portion of children’s brains, because they don’t feel connected. Brain science tells us (and supported by what we see in the classroom) that learning in children is amplified when there is an emotional connection. 

Additionally, we are sitting in a pivotal moment in history, where at record rates, children are spending less and less time outdoors, which has even thought to be causally related to a wide range of behavioral problems. If you think back to preschool, children lead this almost fairy-tale like existence in which they are encouraged to wonder and wander. Elementary school marks the end of that fairy tale like existence and yet, what evidence is there to support the need to get serious and study? We want to bring the wondering and the wandering, especially in nature, back into education in particularly for our children living in urban environments and lacking the means to access nature. We are so lucky, in the Bay Area, to be so connected to nature geographically.

Does it follow any current educational ideology such as Reggio Emilia, IB or Common Core?

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Pacific Discovery School enmeshes influential and progressive ideas from great American philosophers and scientists such as John Dewey, Howard Gardner, Phillip Harkness, and John Muir. We are focused on creating a child-centered, interaction-rich whole-child approach to education. Pacific Discovery School is a school where the definition of "talent" or "gift" is broad enough to encompass the different intelligences of each child, where students are engaged in learning not only because they see the relevance of what they are learning to the real world, but also to their own world. It’s where thoughtful and reflective investigation of big ideas is fostered through collaboration and respect.

Parents are surely interested to know if our curriculum will be based in the Common Core.  And although our curriculum is not based in the Common Core per se, we see the validity of it, and through our integrated curriculum, I believe our students not only hit the key points of the Common Core, but excel far beyond them. 

Our early childhood development, on the other hand, will specifically take a more Reggio Emilia inspired approach.  

Pacific Discovery School is redefining education to empower and challenge each child academically, emotionally, and socially in a nurturing community. The Program includes a purposeful combination of several components - a robust outdoor education program, customized learning plans for each student, classrooms built on the foundation of collaboration and respect and intimate class sizes of 12:1 at max. - making it a one of a kind and unique place for families to spend their TK-8th grade years. The vision is to create a nurturing environment where students feel known and understood for who they are and who they wish to become. 

Join the Open House on Saturday, April 7, 2018 from 1pm-3pm, 70 Lomita Drive, Mill Valley, RSVP required.