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Wilkinson School Challenges Montara Mountain
Joe Devlin and Emily Berk

Most days at Wilkinson School begin with Ed Wilkinson, Mr. Woo to students and alumni, leading flag salute. The students gather around the flagpole at eight and Mr. Woo discusses issues of interest to the community like birthdays, accomplishments of students and staff, changes to the schedule, and challenges to be overcome. Flag salute usually ends with students marching to their classrooms singing songs that range from the sublime "God Bless America" to the ridiculous "The Cat Came Back." Flag salute is one of those rituals that defines a particular place and a particular group of people. It's a ritual that may seem hokey, but which can bring tears to the eyes of those who have participated in it, even when they think back on it years later.

At one particular flag salute, Mr. Woo issued an astonishing challenge to the nearly two dozen first- through eighth-grade students of Wilkinson School. "We," he said, "all of us, are going to climb Montara Mountain. We won't be able to do it the first time we try. But, each time, we are going to go a little further. By April, we will be able to hike more than five miles, all the way from McNee Ranch State Park in Montara across the mountain to San Pedro Valley Park in Pacifica. That day every one of us will be carrying a backpack with all the gear needed to camp out that night. Every one of us."
Wilkinson School, the cozy El Granada private school Linda Wilkinson founded twenty-four years ago, has certainly faced its share of challenges recently. Over the summer, the Wilkinsons determined to transform the school once again into a sole proprietorship administered by Ed and Linda Wilkinson, to limit its enrollment, and to return to multi-grade level instruction within three classrooms.
And, throughout those two dozen years, the Woos have routinely challenged their students to strive a little harder, both physically and academically, every day. But— hike Montara Mountain? All of the students, really?

The Wilkinson School has always incorporated exploration of its community and the rest of the world into its curriculum. The school building, which was originally constructed by Senator Francis Parkman in the 1930s, is lovely and spotless. Each classroom has an ocean view. But no classroom is big enough to contain the energy of so many enthusiastic scholars hour after hour, school day after school day.

For this reason, teachers at Wilkinson regularly schedule outdoor expeditions to rewarding destinations on the coastside and beyond. On warm days, students might hike to a local shop for ice cream cones. In springtime, there's an annual camp-out at Memorial Park and another backpacking in the redwoods of Big Basin Park on the Skyline-to-Sea Trail.

The school encourages students to participate together in wide-ranging educational adventures. One year, Wilkinson families found themselves climbing Mayan pyramids in the Yucatan. Another year, they went kayaking in West Cork in the British Isles. They participated in the Oregon Trail Wagon Train in Nebraska. Last spring, they hiked to the Sacred Spring on the Iroquois Reservation in upstate New York.

A field study trip to the High Sierras in October of 2000 provided third- through eighth-grade students with hands-on experiences of how electric power is generated in this remote location. The entire school and its families are embarking on a ski-and-snow weekend to Yosemite in early February. For two weeks this April, the school, with alumnae and families, will study the Civil War on-site on the East Coast and the South.

Opportunities to learn while engaging in strenuous physical activity abound at Wilkinson. For example, this past fall, students participated in the first annual Woolympian Swimming Olympics at a local pool. Don't know how it happened, but EVERY participant came away with a gold medal (and learned how to swim at least a little better than they had before.)

Even so, standing there listening at flag salute, some of us parents might have dismissed Mr. Woo's Montara Mountain challenge as hyperbole. Or, could it be that Mr. Woo had finally over-reached? Would our children pass out from exhaustion half way up and be left in the dust? Never. Mr. Woo had a plan.

First of all, nearly every day, Wilkinson students practice hiking on the wooded trails of Quarry Park or at Pillar Park Harbor, or the coastside trail from Surfers' Beach to Sweetwater Park. Even the pre-schoolers and kindergartners practice, so they will be ready to meet the Montara Mountain challenge when they get a little older. One day per week, every week, Mr. Wilkinson takes first through eighth graders to walk the Montara Mountain trail. Afterward, the students work out at a local gym. Each week, each student gains more strength and more confidence.

Ed and Linda Wilkinson set high goals for all their students. Key to achieving those goals is learning to break them down into series of manageable steps. The initial goal that Ed Wilkinson set for the Montara Mountain challenge was for the children to get far enough up the trail so that they could see Brooks Falls. Even that didn't happen on the first hike. The kids tried this steep mile-long path wandering through fragrant groves of redwoods, pines, and eucalyptus. Halfway to the falls, one of the bigger kids took pity on my little first grader and carried her. (Good training for the third grader...) And when the first did finally, arrive at the falls, what a disappointment — no water was running.

Every hike is a new learning experience. On the fourth week, the waterfall WAS running; an advantage of the rainy season. On other trips, they discovered a tiny brown egg shell, numerous deer. Once, they even sighted a bobcat. Later this season, a San Pedro Valley ranger will join the hike to help students learn to formally identify local flora and fauna.
Each week, the students progress a little farther. After the third mountain hike, the two smallest first graders triumphantly proclaimed that they had been the first to the waterfall and the first to get all the way back down. "We didn't have to be carried at all, but next time I may let a big kid carry me a little so they still feel important," said one proud, young explorer.

Obviously, Mr. Woo means for his challenges to be met and makes sure his young charges acquire the skills so they can do so. We are beginning to believe that every student at Wilkinson School WILL make the hike all the way to San Pedro Valley and will have a great time doing it. Along the way, the kids will have developed their can-do spirit and the feeling that they can accomplish any goal if they break it down into manageable steps.

It is a great lesson to learn and one the Wilkinson School lives by.

The Wilkinson School will be participating in the Coastside Mothers' Club's Preschool Open House, which takes place on Saturday, February 3, 2001 from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Families with students of any age, from pre-school through eighth, are welcome. Or, make an appointment to visit; you can reach Wilkinson School at 650-712-8370.