The Little School That Could, and Does

This is a story of the little school that has been quietly providing quality private education longer than anyone else in Santa Barbara.

Howard School was founded in Montecito 85 years ago. It was displaced through sale of property just a few years ago and now makes its home in Carpinteria. It is a tight, closely knit community comprised of a wild mix of ethnicity – immigrant families from both Mexico and Holland, middle-class families, moneyed nurserymen and others of modest means (28% of the students are on financial aid). The families come in from Montecito, Santa Barbara, Goleta, Santa Ynez and Carpinteria.

Because of shared facilities with Girls Inc., the school is one of the more affordable private schools, with nearly 100 students enrolled in pre-K through eighth grade.

Howard employs the Carden method, an “old school” outlook on classic education. (For instance, reading skills are taught through a sequential presentation of phonics, rhythm and visual imagery.) A comprehensive curriculum requires mastery of math, science, reading and writing. Because Carden emphasizes all the disciplines, art, music, theatre, foreign language (French, and then Latin in the upper grades), computer and physical education are considered essential components to a complete education. The school opens with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer (a non-denominational reverence of God here). With the exception of the computer, this could be a wholesome whole-child school from the 1920s America. No wonder the parents are so passionate about the place.

Which brings us to the annual fundraiser. The small school goes out in a big way for anything benefiting the school. Under the direction of event chairman/art teacher Brooke Rye, along with her busy committee team, the school went to town on its theme, “Hula for Howard.” The setting was donated by QAD – a spectacular view down to the harbor and out to the islands. So far so good. Then there were decorative palm trees, tropical flowers, arrangements, orchids abounded (as in Carpinteria nurseries). Polynesian flags and linens and tiki masks. Lots of tiki masks. Every single child in the school – from pre-K thru eighth grade – made a tiki mask in art class to add to the décor. The place reeked happily Hawaiian.

I could not get over the number of items in the silent auction – especially when I remembered this was a small school. How in the world did they get all this stuff? There was everything but the kitchen sink ... oh, wait a minute, they did have a kitchen sink. A copper one at that. Also an inspection of your sewer lines – and on the other end of the smell spectrum, were those aromatic custom candles from parents Brook and Billy Taylor of Pacific International Candles. Kids’ artwork abounded – demonstrated on beautiful little wooden chairs and picture frames.

The silent auction items were harvested with the teamwork of Dimma Wall-Ortiz, Allison Van Wingerden, Tona Wakefield and Jody Ziehl. Then John Mosby and artist Rebecca Stebbins rounded up a dozen impressive oral auction items – with Larry Crandell ready to do the honors.

Crandell started off the auction with a brunch, and was making headway, when he paused perplexed. “Is that a bid over there?” he pointed across the room. “Oh, wait – that’s just the table decoration.” The centerpiece was a wild collection of exotic flowers topped by an outstretched bird-of-paradise.

“I never had this happen before,” Larry chuckled. “The centerpiece looks just like a raised hand. Gee, I almost sold the brunch to a plant!” The crowd roared.

Who all was there? There were a couple thousand Van Wingerdens and Brands, judging by the Amsterdam accents flung all over the room.

Lots of parents, of course: Sue and Jim Robbins, Harold Whiting (Pearl Chase’s great grand nephew), Peter and Paula Gennaro, John Zeihl, Steve and Elisabeth Zahm, Matthew and Damian Wilkinson, Dr. Cary and Liz Conyers.

Community people: Nikki Simon from the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation (where the Howard School children do volunteer work); Loretta Redd from the Alzheimer’s Association; and Catherine Remak from K-Lite radio volunteered as emcee, while Peter Bie provided music and announcing.

Interestingly, there were about a dozen Howard School alumni – including college grads and students from all the local high schools – who came back to volunteer to help.

Finally, it was time for the “beg” – a new component of local fundraising developed in the Santa Barbara tradition. The way this works is you wait until after the oral auction is over, and then you just… well, um, beg for money for the cause. You ask people to hand over large sums even though they won’t get a lovely parting gift or door prize in exchange.

Event chairwoman Brooke Rye was ready to set the stage for the deed.

“As most of you know, I was diagnosed (January 23) with stage-four metastasized breast cancer and given two months to live,” Rye began, “which was a major inconvenience.” (The entire school is wearing wristbands in solidarity with their beloved art teacher.)

Brooke, who did not look like someone who had just gone through radiation for a brain tumor, chemotherapy, and having a hole drilled through her back to drain her lungs, cheerfully announced to her friends that she was going to play the cancer pity card – if it could help the school!

Brooke and her husband, Rory, challenged other committee members to match their donation of $1,000 to help with financial aid/scholarship – and another $10,000 was raised in a matter of minutes.

Headmaster Joel Reed drew us in emotionally to make a special presentation. He told us that when he hired Brooke, he thought she would be a terrific teacher for the students. “However,” he said, “I did not realize that she would end up being a teacher for all of us – administration and faculty. She has really shown us a love for learning and for Carden and for one another. She has taught us a spirit of volunteerism and for caring.” Emcee Remak added, “She taught me the meaning of so many words – ‘tenacious’… ‘bold’… ‘spiritual’…’ giving’ and ‘courage.’”

On behalf of the entire school, Headmaster Reed then announced that the Mae Carden Award – given annually to an outstanding student in the arts (music, art, dramatic arts) – would be renamed the “Brooke Backman Rye Award.”

The crowd cheered and gave a standing ovation. The young alumni cheered and waved their hands. This crowd loves the school, loves the teachers and loved making money to help all their kids.

Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss, whose little boy is in the primary grades, summed up thoughtfully: “It is such a perfect school – with their emphasis on the arts, and solid teaching, and their caring for all the kids – they just don’t make schools like this anymore.”