Sonoma Academy: know us by our beliefs

Sonoma Academy opened in 2001 in what was then the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa. We have since moved to our 34-acre campus in southeastern Santa Rosa, which allows us to serve 270 students from more than 35 cities and towns in the North Bay.

Almost two-dozen of our students hail from Sonoma Valley.

Our biggest challenge as a start-up school has been defining ourselves to the community. First and foremost, we are a college preparatory school. That means students who fulfill our graduation requirements can apply with confidence to any college in the country and abroad. Everyone at Sonoma Academy is on the college track.

Harder to describe is what we mean when we call our school “independent” rather than “private.” The difference merits explaining, especially on the West Coast, where there are fewer independent schools than in the East.

Private schools draw some portion of their educational beliefs and/or funding from a larger institution (such as a church, or Waldorf philosophy). Independent schools, however, choose their own philosophy and beliefs, using them as both foundation and guiding star.

The core values of Sonoma Academy – how we teach, how we interact, what we expect from students, and what they can expect from us – are expressed in our educational beliefs and how we act on them. They are the best representation of who we are as a school community.

We believe that high school students have extraordinary capacities that are ready to emerge. Sonoma Academy pairs students’ capacities with equally extraordinary opportunities to expand their minds and relationships. We also challenge students every day to engage actively in what they are learning.

We believe that teens need a rich, challenging, multifaceted program to fuel their natural curiosity. All courses incorporate hands-on activities, group work and technology. Advanced studies courses such as constitutional law and philosophy challenge students to delve into complex material and articulate their own conclusions. Math students can accelerate to multivariable calculus; Sonoma Academy is the only school in Sonoma County to offer it.

We believe that waiting until college to think and act globally is too late for today’s youth and for our communities. We encourage students to discover the world by studying world religions, history and literature; participating in international videoconferences with other schools; and partnering with non-governmental organizations and international activists. We offer international travel programs each year during “Intersession” (between semesters I and II). Our students have traveled to such countries as Thailand, China, Costa Rica, France, Honduras, the Czech Republic, Japan, Russia and Ecuador.

We believe that adolescents are hardwired to take risks as part of self-discovery. Our students are routinely asked to take positive risks – leading teams, classes and learning groups; exploring a new interest; initiating a club or service activity; speaking up at community meetings; putting ideas together in a new way – that lead to self-confidence rather than self-destruction. We also support healthy risk taking through our exploratory classes. These noncredit electives range from rock climbing to 3D printing.

We believe that teachers can make or break a teen’s natural curiosity about the world and drive to know herself or himself. Our teachers are passionate experts in their subjects; they see teaching as a means of unlocking the potential in each person. With class sizes averaging 15, and one teacher for every 12 students, faculty can focus on students as individuals.

We believe that teachers need to have the training, time and desire to inspire and mentor students. Our teachers are drawn from across the country, and more than 80 percent hold advanced degrees. We give them the creative freedom and support to develop new curriculum and improve teaching practices every year.

We believe that teenagers profoundly influence their classmates. Our students thrive in a peer group of similarly motivated learners with ambitions to succeed in the world after college.

We also believe that the skills learned and practiced in high school can have lifelong benefits.

All our classes require students to develop and practice communication (writing, discussion, speaking, developing presentations), problem solving, collaboration and digital citizenship.

Many schools will tell you what they do, and of course we also talk about Sonoma Academy’s many offerings. But if you want to know the kind of learning community you are joining, you should find out what a school believes about its students, about learning in general, and about its role in the world. When asked what makes Sonoma Academy unique, I say, “Get to know us through our beliefs.”

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Janet Durgin is the head of Sonoma Academy.

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Principals whose schools serve Sonoma Valley students are always welcome to submit articles for publication in this Op-Ed space that appear each Tuesday on the Our Schools page. Teachers, parents and members of the community are urged to submit columns as well, on topics of broad relevance to Sonoma Valley families of school-age children. For more information, email ourschools@sonomanews.com.