by Rosemary Edmiston
WHEN EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH WAS
A SOPHOMORE in high school he was suspended and threatened with
arrest after installing a prank program on a library computer.
Ben Lehman ran into trouble
when he used an epoxy mix to plaster posters around school in
an attempt to get a cartoon character elected freshman class president.
Ben Lehman, Jake's brother, was a self-described introvert who was feeling academically stifled, while Bruce Munn suffered merciless teasing by classmates because of disabilities associated with mild cerebral palsy.
Square pegs shoved into round holes, said one parent. Renaissance kids, was the label another used. Brilliant, wonderful nerds, a teacher said.
Stumbling along at different public schools or faced with making the transition from private education to public, they all eventually ended up at the small, non-profit Pacific Dunes High School in Manila and became part of a group that would excel to levels which set the tiny school apart from any high school in Humboldt County.
In this election year, while political candidates fumble to come up with strategies for improving California's public education, Pacific Dunes seems to have found a formula that works at least for some.
"The kids, instead of cutting them to fit, we cut the school to fit them. And it worked," said former head teacher Cecilia Holland. "At a time when everybody is saying that kids are getting into college who don't know anything, we produced kids that are getting into college and getting accelerated through because they're so well prepared."
Among its roughly 15 graduates three earned scores of 800 on the college entrance Scholastic Achievement Test verbal reasoning section (the highest score possible), with overall Pacific Dunes combined scores (verbal and math) being 400 to 500 points better than the national average. Several students finished high school with 4.0 or higher grade point averages, many earned college credits before graduation and most moved on to college usually with one or more merit scholarships.
While students like Marc Marshall who received 200 unsolicited university recruitment letters upon graduation but never wanted to go anywhere but Humboldt State University would have been successful no matter what high school they chose, other Dunes graduates, along with their parents, credit the independent school for their successes.
It was 1992 when Arcata resident Joyce Plath decided she needed to find an alternative place to educate her son Evan, a computer genius who was on the verge of being kicked out of Arcata High School.
"I was watching him dwindle," Plath said. "I was really seeing that when he was in a place where he was engaged in his education he sparkled. He got excited about stuff and he had tremendous energy and enthusiasm.
"He didn't work well in an environment where he was bored and he didn't work well in an environment where he didn't feel respected."
Across the street from the Plaths, the Lehmans were experiencing the same problems. Jake Lehman who in fifth grade was testing at a 12th grade level had left Arcata High and was attending a community school for at-risk and high-risk youth run by the County Office of Education.
Dan and Nancy Ihara also wanted a different kind of education for their son, at the time a student at the private, elementary-level Mistwood Center for Education in Bayside.
Carolyn Lehman recalled the initial meeting around Joyce Plath's dining room table that eventually led to the opening of Pacific Dunes.
"Dan (Ihara) started the meeting by saying `Let's not talk about the problems with public education. Let's talk about the good things in our own education what's worked in our lives and our childrens' lives,' " Lehman said. "And that has been the approach we've taken all along. We never felt like we were in competition with public education, but that we were looking for what worked and to create an environment in which we could provide the things that worked best for our kids."
They looked at forming a charter school, a new type of public school with more autonomy, but decided the bureaucratic process would take too long. So the group incorporated as a non-profit, appointed a board of directors and within months opened Pacific Dunes.
It was a task that was daunting, said Lehman, a children's literature specialist and lecturer at HSU.
Holland read about the project in the newspaper and began attending board meetings.
"They were full of a very peculiar kind of energy which I thought was really interesting. It just felt very charged and very possible and very happening and yet it seemed huge. It just seemed like an enormous thing."
"It was a very intense period of our lives," Lehman recalled. "We had to find a place to rent; we had to fix up the room. We needed to find furniture, we needed to find books; we built a library, we had to hire teachers."
The years that would follow would bring more success, hardship and controversy to the tiny school than anyone among that initial group had imagined possible.
There were heated debates over everything from how to clean the school to discipline to curriculum. Some students gave up on the program (the founders admit Dunes is not for everyone) and teachers were hired, fired and quit. Throughout it all a "cancer" was quietly growing.
Some parents refer to the school as college preparatory, while others like Plath say Pacific Dunes' aim was to "encourage kids to listen to their own drummers and develop themselves in directions that work for them."
Tuition was kept low, from $2,500 to $3,000 yearly, and when possible scholarships were provided to avoid an elitist image.
Classes were small and conducted in seminar/discussion style. Student input was encouraged along with independent thinking. To that end, students who traveled or had extracurricular interests could receive credit for sharing their experiences through presentations and reports.
At 16, Henshaw-Plath developed a computer software program, put it on the Internet and was discovered by staff members at America Online. They hired him to help with a start-up company in Silicon Valley. He took the job because he was able to earn high school credit for the work.
Vernell "Spring" Lundberg, 18, went to India for five months with her father and earned credit for making class presentations and a community slide show.
"If I had been in public school I perhaps would have been chastised for being gone so long," she said.
Holland recalled the initial days after the school's first group of students, nine in all, arrived.
"It was chaos, it was just chaos," she said.
"Everyone had all these big ideas. The kids arrive and all the ideas go out the window. They were climbing the walls, they were impossible. They were all pulling at different directions at once. They had all the kid baggage, they had all the politics, all the manipulatives, everything.
"But what they had that was incredible was they wanted to learn, they wanted to learn something that was real. They had had it with the hype and propaganda and having their little heads filled with it all the right ideas. They wanted to know something and they were hungry. As soon as they found out that you were willing to teach them something, or that you would even pay attention to them, they were like leeches," she said.
By the second year the school had grown to 16 students. Student behavioral problems had mellowed and classes were more orderly and purposeful, Holland said.
"And then it was just obvious that this was really really working. ... And we started getting more proof because the kids' scores on the SATs were phenomenal."
The first graduation was held in June 1995.
A press release issued at the time boasted: "The three graduates all college bound have among them been solicited by universities from Harvard to Cal Tech, accepted by all the colleges of their choice, and awarded several scholarships including the prestigious Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship."
Holland, a Guggenheim Fellow who has written some 24 historical novels and was described by teacher Dan Ihara as "the humanities department of Pacific Dunes," was the commencement speaker.
But within months the "cancer," as Holland called it, would be detected. Holland was arrested and charged with two felony crimes and as many as five misdemeanors stemming from a March 1994 field trip during which she and five students shared a marijuana cigarette.
Alone in her "rattly old van with five screaming kids," Holland said, the trip quickly degenerated. Other parent chaperones had dropped out and Holland, exhausted and a non-disciplinarian by her own admission, let her guard down after the students found a joint in the van.
"It was a stupid mistake. It was a very, very stupid mistake," she said.
Holland ended up admitting what she had done to police ("if you're going to be a grown-up, you've got to be a grown-up all the time, which means taking responsibility,") pleading no contest to two misdemeanors and was subsequently sentenced to probation and community service. At the sentencing hearing, one student after another came to her defense.
Having previously adopted a zero-tolerance policy for cigarette smoking, drugs and alcohol, the school had no choice but to fire Holland. She resigned.
"I really think Cecilia was the center of the school," said Ben Lehman, 16. "I think when she left things began to fall down, because she really held everyone together. She was a really good influence on me.
"She was just a great teacher. She made us interested in what she was teaching. ... She treated us like adults. I think I really flourish in that environment because when she left I started doing pretty badly in my classes."
If Holland's students found joy in knowing her, the feeling was mutual.
"I read them Dante's Inferno," she recalled, "because I knew if I assigned it to them they would not read it. It's too difficult."
She read the work in two separate classes. Her enthusiasm was contagious.
"I saw it again. I felt it again. And I realized it isn't just a symbol of the transition from the medieval to the modern it is the transition.
"The whole thing was so exciting. It was just a wonderful experience. But then there was this little cancer thing happening."
At its peak, the school had 24 students. But the controversy that surrounded Holland's arrest fueled rumors that Pacific Dunes was a "drug school."
Many parents said the image was not fair. While some students at Dunes did use drugs, they said, the ratio of those that experimented with illicit substances and those that abstained was no greater than any high school across the country.
That image, ongoing money problems and the lack of a new group of parents willing to run Pacific Dunes has been hard on the Peninsula Drive school. Eleven students are enrolled this year, but only four of those attend classes in Manila. The remainder are earning credits at either CR or HSU.
It was decided recently, said long-time math and science teacher Ihara, that the school would "investigate other options for educational programs and services for high school students." One possibility, he said, is to provide drama workshops for students schooled at home or those in independent study programs. The school itself, however, will remain open at least one more year until current students graduate.
For the parents who worked so hard to open Pacific Dunes, and those students who found a niche there, the prospect that the school might close is difficult to accept.
"I always hold my hopes out," said graduate Henshaw-Plath.
"What I would love to see," said Carolyn Lehman, "is a group of parents and students who are really enthusiastic about the idea of a school like this in the community. I'd love to see them get involved."
Former Dunes student Matthew Marshall laments this country's learning structure in Revision of Education, a paper he recently wrote.
"It seems a great ragedy that a system wich can provide equal or superior education to traditional methods and be unstressful and enjoyable is available but remains for the most part untapped. ... I have nothing but fond memories of my past education, and I am always disappointed when I hear fellow students complaining about how awful they thing school is. Learning shcould be seen not as a trila but as what it is: a cooperative experience meant to enrich our lives, our worlds and our future."
As for those four boys who were miserable and had wreaked so much havoc at public schools -- well, Jake Lehman attended Hampshire College in Amgerst, Mass., for a year, traveled the United Stantes and is now an activist working to save the last of the wild buffalo. His brother, 16-year old Ben, graduates from Dunes this month and plans to continue doing what he's been doing since he was 15 -- taking classes at HSU. He's interested in writing and physics and plans to apply to Harvard, Brown and Oberlin.
Bruce Munn, 18, has been accepted to the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
Henshaw-Plath, 21, has taken an educational leave from Hampshire College (he received $22,000 in scholarships to attend) as is working with a group of venture capitalists to start his own software company, MetaEvents in Haldey, Mass. He's already sold a program to a consortium of five East Coast Colleges.
Recalling his high school computer
prank, he said: "The funniest quote I ever heard them say
was that I would never get within 100 miles of a college computer
system. And now (universities) are paying me thousands of dollars
to install my software on their systems."