Pacific Discovery School, a new, private K-8 school founded and headed by Wendy Xa, a former vice president at Goldman Sachs and a mother of two who founded the Mandarin immersion Presidio Knolls School in San Francisco in 2008 as a preschool before expanding it to a K-8 program, is taking over the space at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
The school’s administrative team is feverishly planning outreach to the Mill Valley community and beyond, starting with an open house set for this Sunday, March 4, from 1-3pm to promote a curriculum that embraces small class sizes, customized learning plans, on-site learning specialists, outdoor education and collaborative learning.
Pacific Discovery is taking over Ring Mountain’s lease with the district, an agreement that runs through 2024, according to Sarah Flowers, Ring Mountain’s head of school for the past five years.
“After struggling with enrollment and demographics for a number of years, we couldn’t model out the growth we needed in order to be sustainable,” Flowers says. “Our board decided that we would have to wind down. We’ve been helping our families and our teachers find new schools.”
With the success of Presidio Knolls behind it, Xa’s Pacific Discovery School hopes to step into that void with “a focus on embracing and empowering the individual child to feel confident in who he is versus what others think he should be,” says Christina Forté, the school’s community outreach director. “That’s really the foundation on which this school has been built. Creating, self-aware, happy, empathetic and confident kids…that’s going to be the school’s measure of success.”
Pacific Discovery officials are working with some Ring Mountain families and teachers to stay on with the new school, according to Forté. Flowers says Ring Mountain’s current enrollment is 55 students, down from 80-90 in recent years. She says enrollment dipped when its preschool, which served a feeder for K-8 enrollment, closed a few years ago.
“My sense is that small independent schools are all feeling the forces of demographic changes and the shifts of where families live and where they are spending their money,” Flowers says. “And the public schools here in Marin are just so good. We’re one of the small independent schools that have to close – but we are by no means the last.”
Forté first learned about Pacific Discovery School through her friend Kimberly Hawks, the school’s director of strategy operations and communications. Their kids go to public school together now.
“I think this school is really special and I decided to join the team to help spread the word,” she says. “Wendy is an incredibly impressive person, and she’s pulled together a great team of educators and curriculum specialists.”
Forté says Xa’s idea for Pacific Discovery School came from her desire to customize the learning environment for each child.
“She fleshed out this idea of looking at the child from a very individualistic perspective, focusing on the academic and cognitive ability of course, but also giving equal measure to the social and emotional growth of a child,” Forté says. “Customized learning plans for each child make Pacific Discovery a unique offering and one that I feel many parents will find attractive.”
Xa felt that Ring Mountain’s space lent itself well to the outdoor education component, Forte says, particularly its proximity to places like Muir Woods and Mount Tam. “Learning differences will also be embraced – there will be real support,” Forté adds, noting that Pacific Discovery will have a learning specialist on site.
Forté says the school is recruiting students from Novato to San Francisco and plans to run a bus from San Francisco to accommodate those students.
She notes that “there were many things that were happening at Ring Mountain that were pretty special, and we’ll be retaining some of those things.” That includes the Harkness table, a teaching method by which students sit at a table to discuss ideas in an encouraging, open-minded environment with minimal teacher intervention.
“It’s an amazing to watch these kids engage in a richer and more robust discussion in which everyone feels heard and there’s a confidence level in every kid,” she says.
Xa and her team plan to renovate parts of the Ring Mountain building, including the front facade, Forté says. They’ll take over the building in June.