Sustainable Seasons: Getting Back to Nature at Midland

Posted on Oct 15 by SEASONS Magazine

Midland’s outdoor leadership program takes the classroom outdoors when students venture on three and four-day trips to the San Rafael Wilderness, the Sierra Nevada, Joshua Tree, Big Sur and the Channel Islands. Photo courtesy Midland School.

Midland’s outdoor leadership program takes the classroom outdoors when students venture on three and four-day trips to the San Rafael Wilderness, the Sierra Nevada, Joshua Tree, Big Sur and the Channel Islands. Photo courtesy Midland School.

Nestled on 2,860 acres, Midland School is a 10 minute drive north of the town of Los Olivos. The unspoiled land is contiguous to the San Rafael Wilderness and Sedgwick Preserve. In 2008, the school placed 2,727 acres under conservation to remain undeveloped in perpetuity. This spectacular natural setting provides the ideal “classroom” for students to learn to honor nature.

Midland is a boarding co-ed college-preparatory high school with a maximum enrollment of 90 students. Graduates go on to prestigious universities like Stanford, UC Berkeley and Cornell, but what sets Midland apart from other prep schools is the expansive natural setting, a focus on sustainability and the jobs program, which is designed to teach self-reliance and responsibility.

Midland practices a closed-loop food system where kitchen scraps are used to feed hogs and for compost to fertilize an eight-acre organic farm. Students help with farming pork and grass-fed beef for their meals. As Head of School Will Graham explains, “These jobs teach the students how to be useful and capable.”

Midland’s solar program, spearheaded by faculty member Lise Goddard, serves as a prototype for other schools. Each sophomore learns the chemistry, math, physics and rationale for solar energy, and then takes these lessons into the field to construct solar panels. The arrays currently provide 30% of Midland’s electricity, and the school plans to be carbon-neutral within 20 years. The environmental action plan includes energy-efficient lights, native oak restoration, recycling, use of recycled paper and a pollinator hedgerow program to foster a bee habitat and to benefit native and cultivated plants organically.

Academic classes at Midland meet Monday through Saturday in cozy classrooms that hark back to simpler times. Photo courtesy Midland School.

Academic classes at Midland meet Monday through Saturday in cozy classrooms that hark back to simpler times. Photo courtesy Midland School.

In 2009, Midland School received the highest environmental honor given by the state of California—the Governor’s Award for Environmental and Economic Leadership. It is the only school in the state to receive this recognition.

This may sound like a school founded in the 60s, but its roots reach back to the midst of the Great Depression when resources were scarce. Founder Paul Squibb believed “money, light, heat and water are not things that flow naturally out of pipes, but are things for which somebody has to spend time, thought and energy.” He and wife Louise founded Midland in 1932 as a place where students could live a “simple life,” distinguishing wants from needs and living in harmony with nature.

Faculty and students help with the upkeep of the oak-shaded campus. Students start as waiters and dishwashers and rotate through jobs from carpentry to chopping wood for heating water for showers. In this way, Midland nurtures every student with a web of connectivity and fosters self-reliance. As Graham remarks, “Everyone has a job, everyone is needed.” One student, Miles, adds that the small class size encourages cooperation, “You can’t opt out of participating in Anthropology when there are only four students!”

Seniors assume leadership roles, being trained to be job heads, class prefects and head prefects, who counsel the younger teens, moderate conflicts between students and settle disciplinary issues. A faculty member oversees the process in which the transgressor addresses the student community. An issue like smoking on campus often results in reparation such as running a lap around the school. Miles explains, “It’s not so much running the mile, since some students are long-distance runners. It’s having to come before your peers and explain why you did what you did.”

Midland School teaches students to be good citizens, not only within the community, exhibiting teamwork and accountability, but also within the natural world, as stewards of the land and as part of a sustainable way of living.

Crawford, a senior whose family is in the viticulture business, enthuses, “Growing up on a ranch, I had a work ethic beforehand, but Midland really helps you develop a smarter work ethic. I was into big machinery and loved to till up the ground. Now I have a different outlook. I just wrote my senior thesis on why the world should be into regenerative agriculture.”

A popular destination for field trips, Midland’s many partnerships include The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, UCSB scientists, SB County Trails Council and The Nature Track Foundation. With a permit, individuals can also enjoy Midland’s 35 miles of hiking trails.

For more info, call 805/688-5114 or visit midland-school.org.

Tama Takahashi

Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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