The Harris Learning Center, an independent study program that is a project of the Harris Community Center under the auspices of the Mattole Valley Charter School, will start its fourth year on the Heartwood Institute campus this fall.
A new teacher, Theresa Ozard, will be living at the school and working with students four days a week.
The Learning Center is now seeking new students from kindergarten through grade school age to join the six students currently enrolled.
In 2006 Ann Hammond, along with several other parents in the remote Harris-Island Mountain area southeast of Garberville, felt that their neighborhood needed a school.
For the past 15 years local families had either been homeschooling their children or sending them to Redway Elementary, more than an hour’s ride from the school bus stop near the New Harris General Store on Bell Springs Road.
Hammond knew she could teach her children at home but she believes that school fills children’s social needs, as well as being the "hub of the community," especially in remote rural areas where there are no other gathering places.
"Ann, all you need to start a school is a bunch of kids and a box of supplies," Beginnings founder Peter Ryce told Hammond.
Hammond, Bruce and Chela Burger, the founders of Heartwood, Sue Albin and her partner Wes, Bonnie Blackberry, and other Harris area neighbors originally planned to use the historic Harris school building at the junction of Harris and Bell Springs Roads.
Decades earlier local residents had purchased the property from the Southern Humboldt Unified School District when the district discontinued the original Harris School. At that time parents and school supporters arranged for a half-time teacher from SHUSD and paid the teacher’s salary.
But even after the school closed in 1990 and use of the building declined, Sue and Wes continued to pay the property taxes. "They were so welcoming to the idea of a [new] school," Hammond recalled. Community members raised funds and began renovating the old building.
But by 2009 most of the families with children in the area had either moved away or were sending their children to SHUSD schools. The Harris school’s enrollment had gone from 20 children to only four.
That same year, a convergence of events opened new possibilities, however, as Hammond recalled. First the Heartwood Institute announced it was closing and let the parents know it had space available for rent. Then President Barack Obama took office and established his economic recovery program, which included funding to assist education in "disadvantaged" communities.
Koree Mateas and Erin Larson guided the Harris Community Center through the process to become a 501c3 non-profit corporation. The Harris Community Center took on development of the new school as a project, and they were able to receive funding from the federal recovery program, Hammond said.
Many members of the Harris community who had donated money and worked hard to renovate the old building were unhappy about leasing a new facility from Heartwood for the school. Hammond herself made the call, choosing the new building for a number of reasons.
She was concerned that because the old building was on the road to town, people would drop off their children and keep going, she said. She envisioned the school as the community hub.
Heartwood had become an informal social center, with local people coming to get massages from Heartwood students, swim in the pool, and enjoy "pizza night," featuring great pizzas cooked in Heartwood’s outdoor brick oven.
Additionally, the building, which includes an apartment upstairs, a kitchen, bathroom, and large open room downstairs, as well as a deck, garden area, and shady play area, was ready for immediate use.
The Harris Learning Center began with a summer recreation program, drawing together a core group of five families who decided to keep their children on in the fall for the independent study. The parents themselves were the first teachers.
Mattole Valley Charter School provides support for parent-operated learning centers throughout Northern California from Mendocino to Mt. Shasta, and the Harris Learning Center is now part of its network. The charter school provides teachers and other resources for individual students and for learning centers.
In the 2011-12 school year Heather Scharlack taught the New Harris children three days a week, but the long commute from her home near Whitethorn created too much hardship, especially since she had young children of her own.
"We were so sad to lose her; she’s a great teacher," Hammond said.
The new teacher, Theresa Ozard, whose three daughters are now in college, has agreed to live at the New Harris school in the second-floor apartment on the Monday through Thursday. New Harris students will have four days of regular school with their teacher and then can work independently as needed.
Ozard, who ran her own school when she lived in Ferndale, comes to New Harris with excellent credentials, and Hammond is excited to have her on board.
Although the learning center is designed for kindergarten through eighth grade, Ozard is credentialed to work with high school students. Parents of high schoolers should make individual arrangements with her.
Persons with special skills have also taught their subjects at the learning center. Last year, for example, Natalie Chapdelaine taught science and Andy Barnett came out one day a week to lead an "awesome" music program, which will continue in the new school year.
The Harris Learning Center receives a sum of money from the state’s education funds for each student enrolled, and they have agreed to turn this money over to the Mattole Valley Charter School to help pay for the teacher’s salary, including a $1000 per student discretionary fund usually reserved to buy materials.
Having more students enrolled helps brings more state funds for the school and means less work for the parents, who assist the teachers and do lots of volunteer work to keep the school going.
Even more importantly, more kids means more "diversity of friends" for the students and more opportunities to learn from each other, Hammond said. The school is like a family and most of the children have been together for three or four years.
Although there are a couple of hundred households in the area defined by the Palo Verde Volunteer Fire District, which includes the Harris and Island Mountain Road communities, most of them do not have school-age children, Hammond said.
The remoteness of the area and lack of services make living difficult for young families, and many of them end up moving closer to town, perhaps keeping their rural property as a getaway or summer residence.
Hammond knows that babies have been born in the community over the last several years and she hopes that their families will enroll them in the Harris Learning Center when they’re ready for school.
She also hopes that now that the learning center has a full-time credentialed teacher, some of the parents who have sent their children to Redway will bring them back.
The curriculum is based on the "Oak Meadow" home-schooling curriculum developed and fully accredited in Vermont, but each teacher modifies it as she (or he) feels will work best for the students.
The program always includes lots of hands-on activities. "We believe kids should have fun while learning," Hammond said, but she added, "The 3Rs are the most important - unless you can read and do math, how can you learn the rest?"
The learning center follows the standard school year calendar but because all the children are technically in independent study, there is no specific requirement to attend classes. "But we want kids to come to school," Hammond said. "You can’t learn if you don’t come."
On the other hand, the school offers flexibility to families who want to take extended vacations. "Everyone here is from somewhere else," Hammond, who came from New York, observed, and parents like to take the children to visit the rest of their family during the holidays or at other times during the year.
During the summer, the Harris Learning Center offers a recreation program Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Kids enjoy a variety of activities led by counselor John Nunnally during the morning and swim in the Heartwood pool in the afternoon.
On any given day a core group of six to eight students attend, but others are welcome at any time, as long as parents bring required health information to the learning center. There is a charge for the program, which goes to pay the counselor’s salary, but Hammond will work with parents who have financial hardships.
Hammond expressed her gratitude to the many community members, even those without children, who have supported the Harris Learning Center with donations, time, and labor.
She particularly appreciates their help during the past year, when Hammond’s son was undergoing cancer treatment in the Bay Area, and community members stepped up to fill in for her.
For more information, to make a donation or volunteer to help, or to enroll a student, call Hammond at 223-1195.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
1. Kids at the Harris Learning Center’s summer recreation program pause in their games to pose for our camera. Summer rec participants enjoy three days a week of activities, games, and swimming, led by counselor John Nunnally. Makai McBride-Fraser sits on the lap of Michael Perricone and Angelica Curtis stands behind them. Michael Gage flashes a peace sign while Kevin Gage relaxes in the hammock.
2. This building on the Heartwood Institute campus is home to the Harris Learning Center, an independent study program and a project of the Harris Community. Volunteer help and donations from parents and community members in the Harris-Island Mountain area make the learning center possible.