From left, the founder of the Manzanita School Dr. Paul Astin with his wife and Manzanita teacher, Jenny Griffiths, and their
daughters Ila and Amalia. The school is located at Big Rock Ranch on Old Topanga Canyon Road.
Whatever is in the Greek coffee that Paul Astin and Jenny Griffiths share in the mornings must surely include a strong dose of inspiration. It was over such cups of coffee that the Topanga couple often discussed theories of education, innovative ways of teaching, poetry, nature, music, culture, art and how to bring them all together in their new school, Manzanita School and Institute.
On the hallowed, historically rich grounds of Big Rock Ranch, an innovative and nurturing new school is blooming in the Canyon and named Manzanita in honor of the resilient chaparral plant that becomes a metaphor for adolescent qualities.
The appropriate namesake was chosen because the plant contains a resin that can burn even when wet, giving it a powerful internal fire akin to youth.
Aptly, the seed of the plant cant germinate without undergoing the ordeal of passing through fire, which can also be equated to combustible adolescent transition.
Behind the sparkling, intelligent eyes of Dr. Paul Astin, Head of School, one can almost see the inspired wheels turning.
Grades four through nine are the prime years in which to engage youth and guide them to a knowledge of their place in the world. Between the ages of nine and 15 the real changes take place. Its a powerful time of transition. Thats why we are concentrating on those grades.
The community might remember Paul Astin, he of the jaunty cap, as a popular, personable teacher at Topanga Elementary Charter School where he taught for six years.
With a degree in Prehistoric Studies he brought the past into the present and the students even created their own, astounding tribal theater.
Drawing on his jazz background, he enriched the students learning experience by integrating music into the classrooms and the creative sound of the keyboard could be heard wafting through the Topanga air. The children were the lucky beneficiaries of his teaching and guidance.
In honor of Dr. Astins empowering service, he was named Topanga Citizen of The Year in 2008. After leaving to travel, write, parent, learn and grow, he eventually returned to the field of education. He was the Principal at Mariposa School of Global Education in Agoura when recruited to the Big Rock site and the incredible opportunity of developing a visionary school there.
If I had to sell my house and live in a garage in order to get this school going I would! he said.
The legendary Big Rock of Big Rock Ranch on Old Topaga Canyon Road guards the
Manzanita School and Cali Camp.
Obviously, he did the right thing in accepting the challenge because, although only human, Dr. Astin, brings an immense enthusiasm and clear sense of purpose in his desire and commitment to bring the visionary Manzanita concept forth. Walking up the old trail and stepping into the school offices, there is a sense of splendid growth where the airy yet comfortable space is accented by a contrasting dark Manzanita branch displayed like a totem or a mascot, watching over the vigorous human activities required for the opening of such a special school.
One of the humans happily at work is Jenny Griffiths, who is an intrinsic part of the development team and an advisory member. Coming from a background in art and teaching, she is obviously in her element, proven by her beaming smile.
We love Topanga and its thrilling to have this opportunity of bringing what we understand to be true for education and community to young people and their families, Griffith says, with that happy countenance of someone whom you feel you have always known or would have always liked to know. Manzanita is both a profound responsibility and a great joy.
The schools creed is based on six tenets that are ambitious and aspirational guiding principles:
Intrinsic Gift, (finding each students personal genius)
Mentoring Relationships, (building personal connections with students)
Symbiotic Education, (developing big-picture understanding in all fields of study)
Collective Responsibility, (commitment to positive social change and global healing)
Interpersonal Competence, (teaching conflict resolution and fostering emotional intelligence)
Rigorous Effort, (valuing physical work, building emotional resilience and inspiring cognitive engagement)
Along with the guiding principals, the schools unique learning concept is intertwined with its geography. Located in the middle of Topanga within the natural and inspirational cradle of the Big Rock property, nature, too, becomes a teacher. Manzanita will utilize the natural setting to help initiate its academic, full-spectrum curriculum.
Astin explains: A deep nature connection in adolescence builds emotional vitality and creative resilience. We study flora, fauna, wind, rain and sun.
The thoughtful and dedicated development of the connected-teaching theories that Astin has envisioned and refined for 12 years, are ambitious and admirable.
We are in a moment of tremendous opportunity on this earth. The 21st century will see significant and dramatic changes to many failing systems. Its time for forward-thinking paradigms in schooling, ones that can effectively attend to the unique needs of adolescents while engaging communities and families in powerful new ways. Manzanita is a part of this offering, this much-needed change.
Clearly this is a place that will deeply honor, guide, educate and engage the students. In reaching out and involving the community, the part of Manzanita School that is the Institute, invites and promotes dialogue among parents, educators and global thinkers.
The school also offers an ongoing Speakers Series, where experts are invited to address an array of subjects.
Join them at the Topanga Library on Friday, June 27 at 7 p.m., when Manzanita Board member and licensed psychotherapist Jonathan Nadlman will present his thoughts on the poignant topic, Saving Our Lost Boys: What It Really Means To Mentor.
We welcome this brave, new addition to our community.
How wonderful to imagine a place of learning where the unique gift that each student possesses, though some may be hidden in deep hibernation, can be awakened and nurtured to cultivate an inner genius, and enable that individual to usefully and joyously be part of the world.