Walden School: Educating Students Who Are Destined To Make A Difference

* Updated on Dec. 29, 2016. Walden School’s head of school is now Terra Toscano and Scott Turner is the admissions director.

Welcome to Walden School!

The Walden School in Pasadena is a Pre-K-6th progressive school whose namesake is the famous Walden Pond from Thoreau’s “On Walden Pond”. The school, like Thoreau’s personal journey at Walden Pond, embraces personal discovery, adventure and learning with its students.


Front entryway and head of school’s office


Arriving at Walden School on a recent morning, I entered the colorful lobby filled with student art, next to head of school Matt Allio’s glass walled office. I had the opportunity to sit down with Matt before he dashed off to teach a math class. Matt is a brainy, articulate educator who is thoughtful and soft-spoken. Adept at ensuring the school never strays far from its roots, he has bolstered the curriculum with pragmatic, result-oriented programs. His credentials are impeccable, previously serving as head of school at several of California’s most prestigious schools.


In his eight years at Walden, Matt’s leadership has helped to shape a cohesive and distinctive vision for the school. It is a kid-focused, dynamic group of faculty, students and programs that make up this urban school on a shady street in Pasadena. Matt’s tenure at Walden has also led to several one-of-a-kind, signature programs. Thoughtful and introspective, I got the feeling that Matt is simmering with ideas, eager to tackle projects big and small, as he stays close to the students who are his daily inspiration.


Leading to the K classrooms

“We want to graduate students who will make things better, not just maintain the status quo,” Matt told me. “It’s not about the ‘I’ but the ‘we,’” he continued. The writer Alfie Kohn is a major influence on the school’s philosophy. Kohn has written that progressive schools organize learning around projects, problems and questions rather than “lists of facts, skills and separate disciplines,” because “facts and skills do matter but only in a context and for a purpose.”  (Walden literature)


Walden is so interesting I spent more than an hour with Sarah Lougheed-Gill, the admissions director, taking it all in. I gleaned a lot about the school, which definitely resonated with me. An educator and mom, Sarah is enthusiastic about showcasing every aspect of the school. She is outgoing and friendly with a fun, upbeat approach to giving tours, chatting with kids and making visitors feel at home. Janel Umfress, a former Walden mom and now its learning specialist, also joined us.


One of two K-1 classrooms


Sarah explained that the K-1 program draws from some aspects of Montessori influences including mixed ages in the K-1 program.  and other elements in the preschool program. There are 210 students in the school, two classes per grade and about 18 kids per class with two teachers.


Where kindergartners play

Walden was founded in 1970. Remarkably, 39 percent of the students are ethnically and/or socio-economically diverse. Walden’s progressive approach means that students, through traditional academic disciplines, are taught and encouraged to question the status quo and develop skills to improve our world. Thinking in the plural is deeply ingrained in the school’s philosophy. According to Walden’s literature, “Students learn academic skills and concepts through experience and Socratic discussion, as well as through direct instruction and practice”. The day begins and ends with circle time at Walden for all grades. It’s a time for discussing practical tasks and a time for bonding and reflection.


Walden’s Pond


Ethnically diverse, with talented faculty and an incredible sense of community (gorgeous family photos adorn several interior walls), the school fosters collaboration over competition, emphasizing the important role of kids in their own education. It has the latest, most advanced teaching tools and is constantly innovating.


Family wall
Another view of the K-1 outdoor play area

The school’s 1.3-acre campus is modern and spacious. It is includes 13 classrooms, an art studio, a technology lab, a science lab, a sport court and more. Several years ago, Walden students suggested adding a pond to reflect the school’s heritage. Dotted with student-created and inspired projects and shaded with gorgeous greenery, the campus is understated, functional and absolutely marvelous!


The sport court


Matt is especially proud of two unique programs. Walden partners with the USC School of Education, so that Walden teachers receive training and professional development in math from the USC professors. This brings the latest mathematics teaching tools into the classroom on an ongoing basis.


The second program is a Walden partnership with Columbia University’s Teachers College where the school’s teachers are trained in cutting edge teaching reading and writing techniques. Matt explained that this creates students who are excellent writers.


The Technology Lab


Walden has a technology lab overseen by Drew Gagne (he also runs the outdoor education program). The Tech Lab’s work is carefully integrated with the classroom curriculum. While the school uses the most up-to-date-technology, there are no Smart Boards in the classroom, only in the Tech Lab. After talking to teachers, the school realized that Smart Boards in the classroom can create a very teacher-centric model where the teacher is at the front of the room using the Smart Board rather than moving around the room more freely. The willingness to stragetically use technology exhibits a confidence on the part of the school that is instructive and refreshing.


In the music room: drums!
In the music room: guitars!
In the music room: tambourines!
Rainwater Harvest Demo Tank


Walking around the school, we stopped at a large, vertical metal container. Sarah told me the students created a demonstration tank to reuse rainwater to hydrate plants. It is a work in progress, not yet complete. Yet it is an impressive effort involving science, engineering and a variety of other skills. When finished, it will help the school become more eco-friendly.


The library

If you tour Walden, you’ll receive one of the most useful packet’s I’ve seen. It includes a detailed curriculum guide, grade by grade, describing what each grade will be learning in extensive detail. Check out the “Matriculation” section of the website: Walden graduates place at the top independent schools in the area including Barnhart School, Chandler School, Clairbourn School, Flintridge Preparatory School, The Gooden School, High Point Academy, Mayfield Junior School, Marlborough School, Oakwood School, Polytechnic School, The Waverly School, and Westridge School.


Walden is a remarkable elementary school with a clear and compelling progressive approach. Matt Allio and his team have built upon the school’s history to create a warm, forward-thinking place, where diversity of all kinds is embraced. It exudes a spirit of adventure, a sense that every student can reach for the stars, grab one and harness it to fit their unique talents. One incredibly articulate 6th grader remarked in a video about  Walden that if her next school “puts her in a cage,” she will find a way to “break free.” I’m confident that she will!


For more information, visit, www.waldenschool.net


Wordless Weekend: Fall Haul For Mommy Pick-Up a.k.a. “The Catwalk”

The haul: Top: Joie, Jeans: Anthropologie, Leather Cuff: Kendall Conrad, Bracelet: Kendall Conrad, Earrings: Kyler Design, Necklace: Adina Jewelry, Booties: Nine West, watch: Rolex
My own cluster of baubles (Instagram)
This J. Crew accessories bag is so chic I had to have it! (Instagram)
Vintage glam...a gift from a friend. (Instagram)
Reed Krakoff: My fall handbag. Splurge!
My cool new Marni statement necklace puts me in a good mood

Must Haves:

Love this bracelet from www.kendallconraddesign.com
Love! www.kendallconraddesign.com

So there you have it! I’m ready for Fall/Winter 2012 at The Willows School.


L.A. Private Schools and Country Clubs: Caddys, Cocktails and Playdates

Since Beyond The Brochure is about applying to L.A. private elementary schools and what life is really like at some of these schools, its about time I discussed country clubs and the fact that they are a fixture on the social scene at many schools.


Talking to a private school parent recently, they told me they immediately fit right in when their kid started kindergarten at Curtis School since they knew everyone from their country club.


Growing up, my family didn’t belong to a country club. My parents were anti-establishment, left-of-center hippies. You couldn’t have paid them to join a country club. And, with Topanga State Park as our playground, who needed a club?


Fast forward to my daughter’s enrollment at The Willows School. This isn’t a school with a reputation for lifestyles of the rich and famous. So, when I began meeting moms who invited us to their various clubs for playdates, I didn’t really know what to think. My husband and I weren’t members of a country club. A few of our good friends were, but we had never given it much thought.


Playdates at a private country club? Say it ain’t so! I can’t. It’s true.


A group of Willows families in our grade belonged to a “low rent” private club. By “low rent” I mean about $2000 to join and a few hundred dollars per month in fees. Of course, if you play tennis like we do, the lessons can tally up to a few thousand a month. (This is small change compared to the clubs that cost six-figures to join). We visited as guests a few times and decided to become members. We’d meet Willlows families there for swimming and tennis. It was fun. The tennis camp is excellent and my daughter enjoyed a few summers there. Then, the kids got older and we moved to a house with a pool. They started saying they “hated” the club. We stopped using it and discontinued our membership. We haven’t joined another club.


Country clubs play a big part in the social life at some private schools. There are Willows families who belong to Brentwood Country Club, Bel Air Country Club, The Riviera, Beverly Hills Country Club, LA Tennis Club, The Jonathan Club and so on. These exclusive places are part of life at private schools for a many families. Just look through a school’s auction book and you’ll probably see auction items like golf for four at Brentwood Country Club or The Riviera or Braemar.  Dinner at The Jonathan Club. And that sort of thing. These are coveted auction items. Apparently, business gets done on the golf course. I’ve never set foot on a golf course, so I wouldn’t know. Barry (my husband) has gone on a few of these outings since he like golf. But, he always comes home saying he feels uncomfortable with the fact that the service staff are almost always minorities and he’s seen members treating them terribly, which makes him sick.


Some of you are probably already members of clubs so you won’t be surprised to meet other families who are members of your own club or other places. For those of you who aren’t country club members (or its not your thing), get ready. You’ll hear club names thrown around as if they were restaurants. The question is, will it be Spago or California Pizza Kitchen?


Here’s a piece about LA members-only Country Clubs from The Daily Truffle. 

Oh, Those Letters


A letter I wrote for a friend last year

Letters of recommendation are a part of the “hidden” rules of the admissions game for many families applying to L.A. private elementary schools. They are part of the culture at certain schools. Other schools frown upon them.


When you’ve decided where you will be applying, you may want to ask people you know to write letters for your family. These are most meaningful coming from people who have a connection to the school. In other words, a current parent, alumni family or a board member, even a teacher.


Asking someone you know really well (or hardly at all) can be difficult. What will they say? What’s the best way to ask? Will they offer so you don’t have to ask? All these questions may be floating around in your mind. At least they were for me when I found out that people used letters of recommendation to help their applications. At that point, it was February and I had to scramble to get letters for the schools where we applied. We ended up getting letters for two of the three schools where my daughter applied (and was accepted- Willows and Wildwood). We didn’t have any letters for Oakwood School, but she still got in.


Sometimes, you have to ask when you have the opportunity. In person, by email, a phone call. It all works!


Along the way, I learned a few things about those letters:


  • Some people will gladly write you a wonderful, glowing letter of recommendation.
  • A few people will never return your call or email
  • Certain people will ask you for more information about your child
  • If someone asks you to write the letter for them to sign, do it! (Samples are in our book)
  • A lot of excuses about “not knowing” your family means they don’t want to write the letter
  • A conversation with the admissions director on your behalf may be preferred over a letter. That’s good too!
  • If a person says they are having issues with their school and it’s not a good time for them to be writing a letter, trust them.
  • Be prepared for rejection! It happens, but it’s not personal.
  • Be prepared for generosity and helpfulness. It just might be personal