When psychoanalyst Rafe Ellis and his wife Laura, an early childhood educator, opened their preschool on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in 1948, it really was out in the country. Set amid the orange groves and ranches of North Hollywood, The Country School occupied what was one of only three existing houses standing between Magnolia Boulevard and Victory Boulevard.
While the view has morphed from orange groves to strip malls along Laurel Canyon, the original building, which houses the preschool, and the philosophy of the Ellises remains intact at The Country School.
The Ellises were intent on providing a "psychologically safe environment for children." Senior teacher Tracey Renson, an early childhood specialist who started working with the Ellises at The Country School (TCS) 30 years ago, explains the founders believed that "children are competent in their own right but that they're always exploring and looking, so our role is be participant observers."
Lesson plans at TCS are created using the philosophy of the "emergent curriculum." The teachers observe and get to know each new group of students in the first weeks of term and allow the direction of lessons to emerge from the personality of the group.
Renson explains, "It's organic in its own way, so you learn about the group, how they interact with each other and what their particular interests are and what gets those children engaged and excited and then we build our curriculum off of that."
By responding to the children's own interests as a way to incorporate teaching modalities, the staff at TCS feel they are insuring that concepts become more meaningfully and deeply learned, leading students to develop a love of education. At the same time, the curricula all follow the California State Framework for Elementary Schools.
Instruction is also "individuated." Principal Holly Novick emphasizes, "We have learners that are performing way above grade level, we have learners that are right on grade level and we have some struggling learners and we're able to meet all of their needs. We have small group instruction in every classroom." Learning levels are continually assessed and then instruction is tailored to challenge students to move forward.
The Country School offers nine grade levels from pre-school through middle school. The total student population numbers around 165 with a total faculty of about 43. Up through grade five, there are two teachers in each classroom, with class size ranging from 13 to 20.
The school also accommodates physically challenged students, some of whom may be accompanied by aides. Both Novick and board member and interim Head of School Daveen Fox highlight the importance to The Country School of maintaining a diverse student body. To that end, financial aid is available based on need and availability of funds. However, every family is expected to contribute some portion of costs. Says Fox, "There is literally and figuratively more of an investment that way." Fox, Novick and Renson all have children who attended The Country School.
Tuition for pre-school programs ranges from $3,050 for the transition program for two-and-a-half year olds and a parent, to $16,720 for preschool. The elementary and middle schools cost more than $20,000 per year, plus fees.
Fifth grader Austin Seigel and his father John Seigel, both as casually dressed as the staff and wearing baseball caps, like TCS much better than the private school Austin attended up until third grade.
Says John, "He went from a very average, maybe below average student, to scoring in the upper 90th percentile in his last ERB test, which is the private school standardized test. A lot of it is he got the personal attention and the teachers were better."
Austin says he is much more comfortable at TCS with the smaller class size and the teacher-to-student ratio. With fewer kids, he said it is easier to pay attention and adds, "I have more friends here."
John appreciates that with the two-teacher classroom, no child ever leaves the room without understanding the material that was covered. A teacher always has the time to "sit down and make sure they understand the problem or concept." John should know about schools. A former teacher himself, he has five sons ranging in age from 11 to 43.
To enhance the traditional academic experience, TCS also offers programs in art, technology, music and theater. Physical education is also emphasized. "Commitment, relationships, and competition are the basic foundations of all athletic programs at The Country School," according to the school's website. A big asphalt play yard is available for PE.
Ten-year-old Jessie, a dazzlingly blonde fifth grader sporting a blue streak in her hair for Fun Hair Day, "loves" attending The Country School. She enthuses about the athletic program, "it's just so fascinating for me to be here every single day. I love the school because they have sports activities. For, like, the kids in fourth, fifth and, like, all the way up. And we get to play, for the girls it's basketball, soccer and volleyball and for the boys it's football, basketball and soccer. And the girls go on the weekdays for some of their games, and we win a lot. And for the boys, oh my gosh, the boys win every single day. It's amazing to be here. It's fantastic."
Pre-school teacher Renson notes that "aside from all the rich wonderful things that are going on with the children" the teachers are all happy to work here. Being attached to a larger school means the administration is able to allow teachers to continue their professional development by taking part in conferences and classes. "And that keeps everyone engaged and happy," she adds, "and if the teachers are engaged and happy, well, the students will be."
Principal Novick echoed Renson's sentiments "We all feel fortunate to be here. It's not just a job. It's sort of a passion that we have."