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Bare Feet and No Desks: Demystifying the Early Years of SYV Family School

As part of our preparation for the school’s 50th Anniversary celebration in September (get your Bounty of the Valley Tickets HERE), the anniversary planning committee has had the pleasure of connecting with many of our alumni families spanning the last five decades. 


Two things have become clear in reconnecting the generations: 1) We are indeed a family! Even when decades have passed, there is nothing like hearing the joy in a voice that recalls the love and good memories of their years at the SYV Family School.  2) What we think we know about the school, and how it came to be, is only sometimes the full picture. 

Legend and Lore

When a school has been around for fifty years, it’s easy for stories from the early years to take root and become more legend and lore than truth. Perhaps the best example of this is the belief that the school was founded by free-spirited hippies, with no regard for structure or conforming ideas. 


While yes, the kids were sometimes allowed to run around barefoot. And yes, during the early years most learning happened outdoors and not at a desk. The collection of families that founded the school was made up of doctors, entrepreneurs, and professionals. These founding families had grit and determination and were unstoppable in bringing forward a school experience that was not only academic but experiential and full of curiosity and play. 

Parents Were Organized and Motivated

I recently had the honor of speaking with one alumni family in particular, Jim and Esther Munger, who were pivotal in bringing the school from concept to reality, utilizing a love of academics, a vision for community, and the strong backs of determination. 


In the early 1970’s, the Mungers were a young couple with a preschooler. They connected with other young families in the Santa Ynez Valley that wanted a progressive school experience for their children that was both experiential and academic. The Mungers recall the early families were an organized, passionate, and motivated group of people with high standards around what could be accomplished.  


After the first year of classes at the Los Olivos Grange, Jim Munger went to his Dad, Carl Munger, who was the HeadMaster of Midland School at the time, and said plainly, “we need a real elementary school. Would you be willing to lend us some Midland land to build on?”


Carl answered without hesitation saying, “How about that field over there?”, pointing in the direction of the current school campus. 


Jim Munger recalls, “That brief conversation in early 1975 was about all it took, and we were off and running.” 

During Thanksgiving weekend that same year, the founding families came together and built the first two-room building, that we now know as the Green Door classroom, and that same month the school’s Articles of Incorporation were drafted and signed by the founding families. 


The Mungers shared that the role of parents in the early years of the SYV Family School cannot be overstated. They recall the caliber and clout of those early families; Louie and Helen Netzer, Laurie and Randy Herman, Geno and Niki Evans, Helena and Jeremy Jaynes, Cammie and Sherman Herrick, Sue and Bill Turpin, Philip and Cassandra Grant, among others. 


Parents were not merely spectators but active participants in the educational journey of their children, contributing significantly to shaping the learning environment. Their involvement extended beyond their children, as they worked hand in hand with the school to create a community that valued education and personal development, as they built a school from the ground up.

Integrated Academics

From day one, even before there was the first building, the Mungers recall that the focus of the school was on the whole child.  The style of instruction was modeled after the Pacific Oaks College of Education which teaches that a program should offer experiential learning, real-world practice, and a strong curriculum.  For this reason, the parents hired the first Head of School, Helena Jaynes, who had come from a rich educational background from the English method where learning centers were utilized for a well-rounded education. 


This model, combined with the expansive, natural resources of Figueroa Mountain created a new learning experience for the whole family. The children were mostly outdoors examining nature, getting dirty, and playing with the elements. However, Helena had big ideas and was a master at executing a balance between academics and experiential learning. 

From the very inception of SYVFS, a deep-rooted passion for well-rounded education was evident. The founders believed in cultivating a love for learning among the students. They emphasized not just the acquisition of knowledge but the understanding and application of it. The school environment was crafted to foster an interest and personal investment in both the academic and experiential curriculum. Every effort was made to ensure that learning was an enjoyable and enriching experience for each student. 

Experiential Learning Fosters Entrepreneurial Spirit

While the SYV Family School often gets mis-defined as an “arts and crafts” school, it was then and remains now, a pioneer in implementing experiential learning methodologies. The belief was and is that children learn best when actively involved in the learning process. This approach fosters an entrepreneurial spirit among the students. They are encouraged to explore, experiment, and learn from their experiences. This hands-on learning approach helps students develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and a can-do attitude, which are the hallmarks of an entrepreneur.

The early years of the SYV Family School may have been marked by bare feet and no desks, but they laid a foundation for a unique and lasting educational experience. The school's emphasis on academics, the active involvement of parents, and the focus on experiential learning have contributed to its distinctive identity and to many generations of students going on to be freethinking innovators.

Still now, 50 years later, the SYV Family School continues to inspire and nurture young minds, equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the world.

If you would like to learn more about The SYV Family School, please visit and follow along to see what’s happening around campus on our IG @thesyvfamilyschool.

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