Learning Through Service 9

Founded in 2007, Pacific Ridge School, a private independent college prep school in Carlsbad’s Bressi Ranch, is the realization of a vision held by a group of parents and community members who wanted to provide students with an innovative and first-rate educational experience. “Our mission is to foster academic excellence, ethical responsibility and global engagement,” says Alison Behr, Director of Service Learning.

With a student to teacher ratio of 8:1, an enrollment of less than 600 students, a modern 14.5-acre campus that includes arts studios, an audio and video digital hub, a state-of-the-art athletic facility and a curriculum that exceeds the University of California requirements for admission, the mission is achieved every single day. Students study history, math, science, English, foreign languages and the arts just as any other 7th to 12th grader would, but the similarity ends there.

Educators here teach those subjects seated around an oval-shaped Harkness table, face-to-face with their students (15 per class), more like a seminar than a traditional classroom. And the educational experience extends beyond the class – through the Service Learning program, students learn the importance of community involvement, locally and globally.

“Service is part of learning. When you learn about people and cultures that are different from you, you learn about yourself,” Behr says. Service learning at Pacific Ridge progresses as the students move from one grade to the next. Currently, 7th and 8th graders are working with local groups, charities, schools and organizations such as the San Marcos chapter of the Arc of San Diego, Head Start, ActivCare Retirement at Bressi Ranch, County of San Diego Animal Services and Jefferson Elementary School. “In these grades, the focus is on student involvement through service and action, which includes self-reflection and connecting the service to what is being taught in the classroom.” The emphasis in the early grades is exposure to local communities and issues.

Collaboration and leadership are taught in grade 9, and the program becomes completely student-run by grade 10. Through groups like New Ocean Blue, a non-profit created in 2012 by two students to educate local youth and the community about plastics pollution, and Global School Connections, another student-created non-profit dedicated to aiding impoverished schools around the world, current students learn about social justice, leadership and design thinking. “There are 25 groups in high school and 10 independent groups,” says Behr. “The key to our success is that we have the time. Our students spend 80 minutes every week working on service learning. The program is required in grades 7-10. Students may opt out in grade 11 but 85 percent choose to stay.”

Ava Embry is a senior and leads a service-learning group that provides STEM workshops to local elementary schools. The group is also raising funds to build a school in Nicaragua. “I’ve learned leadership skills. I know it sounds cliché, but it has helped me a lot. In middle school, I was a lot quieter but service learning helped me work on leadership and learn how to make connections. I am comfortable reaching out to adults and leaders of organizations that I might have otherwise been afraid to before participating in service learning. It’s helped me make deeper connections in the community.”

Over 90 percent of Pacific Ridge students go on end-of-year trips, ranging from locales in the U.S. such as Yosemite and Big Bear to Thailand, Italy and India. “The trips all have themes, and service is a big component,” shares Behr. Students learn that to affect change and solve problems, they must ask fundamental questions. “When you start with empathy, which is what our students learn beginning in 7th grade, you’re able to move from there to ask the right questions, like ‘what does someone else really need?’ as opposed to just assuming you know.”

Behr adds that parents are attracted to the school’s “newness” as well as the service-learning program. “Service learning is woven into the entire academic experience. We are a unique school, particularly our global program, which broadens everyone’s view of the world, whether students or faculty.” She encourages interested families to attend the winter open house January 7. Admissions and tuition assistance applications are due February 3.