DOWN TO THE BASICS: Midland School’s emphasis is on sustainable living, self-reliance and teamwork
Midland boarding school in Los Olivos isn’t for everyone.
In fact, it’s safe to say most high schoolers probably wouldn’t much care for a campus in the mountains, surrounded by rolling fields, grazing cows, fuzzy tarantulas and wild packs of pigs and coyotes.
And most probably aren’t so hip to the rugged responsibilities of the Midland student: chopping wood for the purpose of heating water for their own daily showers, feeding the horses for the school’s equestrian program, acting as the school’s custodians and plumbers, and going to class every Saturday.
But for those who buy into the college-prep school’s three-pronged mission — sustainable living, environmental stewardship and self-reliance — Midland is more than just a school: It’s a way of life.
However, since the school opened 74 years ago, it has been largely off-limits to the people living next door.
Located on the winding Figueroa Mountain Road, five miles north of Los Olivos, Midland has always exclusively admitted boarding students, leaving no room for families in the Santa Ynez Valley disinclined to pony up the annual tuition, now at $31,500.
That’s about to change.
Last week, Midland officials announced that, beginning next fall, they will open the doors to so-called “day students,” for a reduced tuition of $19,500 a year.
The administrators, though, are careful to add that by no means does this mean the campus will soon be flooded with day students from the valley or beyond. Midland, which enrolls a total of 80 students in grades nine through 12, will admit no more than five day students a year, and no more than 15 total. All new day-school admissions must be freshmen, and must become boarders by their senior year if they wish to stay.
“We’ll be a boarding school with a day component,” clarified Admissions Director Derek Svennungsen — not a school for equal numbers of boarders and day students.
The day students, he added, will have to “get their hands dirty,” just like the rest.
If the administrators sound a little cautious when talking about the new policy, it’s partly because the culture of the school has long been fiercely, even proudly, resistant to change. Oddly, the most vehement advocates of maintaining the old ways have often been the students themselves, many of whom hail from either the Los Angeles or San Francisco areas.
A few years ago, for instance, administrators placed on the chopping block the long-standing practice of using fire to heat water for showers. The logic was that burning wood releases carbons into the atmosphere, and so is a pollutant. Maybe so, students said, but chopping the wood and preparing the fires also instills the values of self-reliance and teamwork, and has been a large part of what makes the school unique. The administration relented.
Right now, about 60 percent of the school’s students hail from California; about 35 percent are from the South Coast.
Others come from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and New York City. The school enrolls as many international students — a handful, all from South Korea — as it does students from within a 20-mile radius.
Most of the students cherish the values the school instills; administrators try to weed out applicants being sent to the six-day-a-week school by their parents to improve their behavior or attitude.
One student, San Francisco native Jasper Jackson-Gleich, said he was skeptical at first, having come from a big city, although he applied to the school of his own volition. But now the senior says he can’t imagine going anywhere else.
When Jasper first arrived, he couldn’t even run a mile. Now, he’s the captain of the cross-country team, and is training for an ultra marathon — which goes for 50 kilometers, or about 30 miles.
“It sort of takes the best part that everyone has to give . . . and sort of cuts away everything else,” said Jasper, whose parents are sound engineers who have worked on such movies as “Apocalypse Now,” “Godfather II” and “A Bug’s Life.” “When I first came, I was sort of moody, and wasn’t in good shape. I got here, and it was like, ‘OK, I can’t do soccer because I’m not quick, but I can run a long time because I’m stubborn.’ ”
Administrators say they are not admitting day students out of concern for the school’s financial solvency. Enrollment is close to the school’s maximum capacity of 90 students. Rather, they say, the school — located next to pop star Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch — has long fielded inquiries from interested families in the area.
“Over the last five years, we’ve probably had to say ‘no’ to 30 or 40 families wishing we had a day program,” communications director Karen Readey said. “We were feeling like maybe we weren’t being the best neighbors. . . . We have a great program here and want to make sure the local folks can benefit from it.”
Also, the new head of school, Will Graham, is at ease with a day student component, having come from a similar school in Maine enrolling both boarders and day students. Mr. Graham, who started his new job in July, said the school’s central tenets will be the same for all students.
“It’s rustic and simple living, it’s ‘needs not wants,’ and the third, and probably most central (tenet), self-reliance,” said Mr. Graham, who teaches English, coaches lacrosse, and — like the majority of the school’s 18 full-time teachers — lives on campus. “Between getting up and taking care of the horses, cleaning a classroom, washing dishes, serving a meal and being prepared for class — all that to me is summed up in the mission to explore and understand the nature of self-reliance.”
Much of the school’s mission is manifested in the way the students eat.
The students harvest their own organic crops, using the pinto beans, squashes and tomatoes as ingredients for their meals. In turn, the uneaten waste goes back out to the garden, in the form of compost, to keep the soil rich in nutrients.
Their meat is organic, too. Midland raises a handful of cattle, feeding them grass for about nine months before sending them off to slaughter. The cows come back in the form of steaks and hamburgers.
Students — about half of whom qualify for financial aid — also learn about energy conservation.
In the last couple of years, they started the long process of switching the school to solar power. Sophomores have installed a solar panel about the size of five ping-pong tables in the gravel parking lot. Now, about 5 percent of the school’s power comes from the sun. As a solar project, they’re shooting for the stars — 100 percent — although that would take a panel the size of a football field.
As freshmen, every student is required to take, along with the requisite English and math courses, a class called Midland 101, which includes the use of a map and compass and the history of the Chumash Indians. The class also has students play a real-life version of Risk, in which the sprawling 3,000-acre campus is divided into 100-acre parcels that the students farm, buy and sell in a game that mimics the way California was settled by Mexicans.
The school also offers rigorous coursework, such as calculus and honors physics. In any given year, at least 80 percent of the graduates go on to a four-year college, usually to their first or second choice, Mr. Svennungsen said. In the last three years, a handful of students have gone on to the Ivy Leagues.
The list of Midland alums includes a few heavy hitters, local and otherwise, including the likes of Barry Schuyler, prominent donor to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, and Charles Webb, author of the novel on which the movie “The Graduate” was based.
But the school’s main aim is not to churn out Ivy Leaguers or famous achievers, administrators say.
“You don’t come here if you are just trying to make sure you get into Harvard,” Ms. Readey said. “What we really want is for kids to come here and work hard, and feel really good about working hard.”