It could be the neighbor’s house next door. How lovely. How charming and inviting. Then we notice that the grounds hold several “houses” and a few buildings, and even spill across the street tucked between a church and the pastor’s home. At this point, we realize we have arrived. This is The Gooden School.
We walk down the steps into a beautiful walkway—the wisteria arbor, we later learn—a trellis overhead covered with wisteria vines and white support columns bearing quaint lamps (though after being retrofitted, we’re told, it’s strong enough to offer protection during an earthquake). This walkway leads to a blue house that contains the administrative offices. There we meet Director of Development Maureen Sprunger and Assistant Head of School and Director of Admission Dr. Marianne Ryan. Our tour begins.
First stop, a quiet, meditative area off of the main walkway, created in memory of Sandra Towner, former Assistant Head of School (her husband Jack was Head of School). Dr. Ryan came up with the idea of creating the walking stones in the shape of a rosary.
When Sandy passed away from breast cancer, there was a memorial fund established. The garden was designed by Lew Watanabe, who is known for his work with stone and light. Sandy carried an Anglican rosary with her to all of her treatments and we decided that a walking Anglican rosary with a fountain in the shape of a Celtic cross (her favorite cross) would be the centerpiece of the garden. It is the only walking rosary we know of in California. It was Lew Watanabe’s first “cross” fountain. The garden is designed as a lady’s garden; all the flowers are pink and red, and it is set off by the wisteria covered arbor.
Gooden was established in 1975 within an existing parish with Episcopal nuns. The nuns “disappeared,” the site was bought and the school opened with 17 students. The school is named for The Right Reverend Robert Gooden, Bishop Suffragan of the Los Angeles Diocese from 1930 to 1947, who was “committed to the belief that all children should receive a quality education and fervently believed that the unique nature of every individual should be known and developed.”
Ms. Ryan recalls that Reverend Gooden, who died at 104 years old, was exemplary, especially one-on-one, treating everyone like they were the only person in the room, which the school strives to exemplify—every one of their current 170 students being seen and known for who they are.
As we have already mentioned, the Gooden campus continues across the street, which is where the younger classes are taught and where the children play in a back field with jungle gyms, a basketball court, and an eating area. Ms. Ryan explains how they’ve implemented a buddy system, the 8th graders paired with kids from Kindergarten through 3rd grade. The upper classmen take their charge very seriously, she says, and the little ones follow them adoringly. Dr. Ryan enjoys witnessing (time and time again) a male 8th grader—hesitant, maybe a little shy with the whole nurturing, caretaking aspect of this duty—soon won over and not thinking twice about holding his buddy’s little hand.
In the first grade classroom, we peek beyond a warming lamp and are introduced to some baby chicks—whose mother is apparently a feather duster. During chapel, Dr. Ryan tells us, the class prays for their well-being, which seems fairly certain as they’ll soon be adopted by students’ families.
Crossing back across the street, we enter the Edwards Building, which twelve years ago was designed around an old oak tree. The art room has large windows on two sides, allowing in the outside, the sunlight through the leaves of the majestic oak creating a dappled effect. It’s a beautiful room.
Moving on, Gooden’s 8th grade teacher, Mr. Williamson, shows us wonderfully diverse and creative dioramas constructed by his students in response to their reading of Night by Elie Wiesel, with one student incorporating and interpreting her own family history of relatives in Russia experiencing arrest and interrogation.
We also see (and pick up before we can stop ourselves) a pack of really cool trading cards that the class created after reading Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks. They wrote to the 83-year-old author—who was thrilled—and they will soon be having a conference call with her. (That’s like, triple cool.)
Part of Gooden’s classical education means that students start Latin in the 4th grade, continuing until they graduate. Impressively, they are able to leave the school with the equivalent of one-year of high school Latin under their belt.
All middle schoolers use laptops and iPads for their assignments, and the computer room is filled with equipment donated by JPL. It seems that after every project, JPL discards their computers and acquires new ones for their next space odyssey (or whatever mission they’re concocting). Instead of junking them, they are wiped clean and donated. The Gooden School is one of the happy recipients of this paying-it-forward generosity. In science, notes teacher Laurie Tortell, the 8th graders make a beeline for their laptops. Their project: programming robots to move ahead slowly, rotate, and speed up when they hear a clap—a perfect project for restless, eager, excited, soon-to-be-graduating seniors. Equally impressive is that every classroom has those hi-tech Smart Technologies interactive boards with Vimeo or interactive overhead projectors.
Every child at Gooden learns to play an instrument (now, that has got to be a challenge; we would have driven the music instructor to tears). First and second graders learn the recorder; third graders may choose the violin or cello, and by fourth grade, students may choose the viola or bass. Fifth grade is a big year and arrives with a big decision to make—string or wind? In middle school, students may play in the orchestra or in the school band that marches in the Sierra Madre 4th of July parade.
Like all of the students with whom we speak, Julia and Katherine are composed and relaxed when put on the spot. We find them in the music room, surrounded by enough instruments to outfit the Pasadena Pops. Julia is in the school uniform, her personality manifesting in her high tops and a purple feather in her hair, while Katherine wears a sweatshirt and pants, and purple and pink sneakers. Dr. Ryan asks if they will play us something. They concur, adjust their violins, take a deep breath, and play a piece of Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel. Our applause is sincere and heartfelt, but can they hear our thought bubble? (“Awesome!”)
Every year, each class puts on a theatrical performance and we are lucky enough to be happening upon Gooden’s all-around room in time to hear the Kindergarteners and first graders practice The Three Piggy Opera…”Now you’re going to hear/The big ol’ bad wolf/Was hungry for pork….” No commentary needed here, right? They’re just delightful.
One of the students’ favorite school traditions is high tea, which is held four times a year. White tablecloths are spread and china cups are employed, though the upper classmen do the actual pouring, role models for the younger ones in proper behavior and etiquette. Maureen says she’s continually impressed with the students’ courteous manners and their level of conscientiousness.
Service learning is another important component of the Gooden School. Each grade has a project such as visiting the elderly and infirm or planting the garden and donating the harvest to food banks and homeless shelters. “Helping Others and Pleasing the Earth,” reads the sign in the garden. The school’s emphasis on social justice, Dr. Ryan says, parallels the Episcopal ideology.
The marvelously whimsical and fun aspect is that the garden’s scarecrow is in the likeness of Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the U.S., Catherine Jefferts Schorri. The students wrote to Bishop Schorri to ask permission to create a scarecrow in her likeness—and they received it—so the bishop smiles all day, every day over the Gooden students’ agricultural and humanitarian efforts.
After we offer our thanks and say our goodbyes, we walk once again under the arbor, pausing to infuse ourselves with the lovely, peaceful, and powerful character of Mrs. Towner’s memorial, while remembering Dr. Ryan’s avowal…
“In everything we do at Gooden School, we talk about the three ‘Rs’. Respect for self, respect for others, and respect for the world.”
The Gooden School, 192 N. Baldwin Ave., Sierra Madre 91024. GoodenSchool.org. 626.355.2410.