In 1977 a public school teacher wanted to try educational methods that couldn’t be done within the system. She wanted to cater to each child. Why not draw on insights from her credentials in both special education and teaching gifted children, and bring students of multiple grade levels together to do just that?
With that, Linda Wilkinson opened up her El Granada living room to six students in grades one through six and founded Wilkinson School.
“I think what we took from that framing is small classes and a low teacher-student ratio,” Linda Wilkinson said. She also carried forward a philosophy that focused on developing academics, arts and empathy through project-based learning, tailored to each student.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the institution continues to serve dozens more students.
“Many teachers have considered (opening a school) and there’s one or two out of a thousand who are actually going to do it, and she did it,” said Ed Wilkinson, her husband and Wilkinson School partner. “It’s unbelievable. We’re so happy with it.”
On Saturday, current students, alumni and their families celebrated each decade of the school’s history in a four-hour-long bash called “Woo Fest” — a name that comes from a nickname Linda and Ed Wilkinson both answered to before they met.
‘We were at a party and somebody said, ‘Hey Woo!’ And we both turned around. We both were ‘Woo.’ That was the start of the ‘Woo School,’” Ed Wilkinson remembered. “We’ve had a wonderful, unusual experience of being married, running a business 24/7 and raising a son and a daughter and just having a blessed life. Hard working, lots of long hours.”
The couple, retired in 2009, recalls the early days of Wilkinson School. It was part of the state preschool system at a time when more than half their students enrolled were from moderate- to low-income households. Classrooms were mixed to include children from different ages, backgrounds and abilities.
Linda Wilkinson said it was a place where children could develop “a deep respect for all kinds of people.”
“I think my special ed background really helped,” she said.
“We really wanted to serve the needs of the community and a very diverse community,” Ed Wilkinson said.
There were growing pains.
From a little red schoolhouse in Linda’s living room, it grew into three different locations in the 1980s. They had a preschool in Moss Beach, and also operated school sites in El Granada and Half Moon Bay.
When that nearly exhausted them, they decided to consolidate to one. They found a little plot of land, bought it and went through 19 agencies up through the California Coastal Commission so they could get permission to build their school in El Granada.
Linda Wilkinson designed the buildings and had them custom built. It was a bumpy ride. Transported on trucks, one of the modular buildings fell off and shut down Highway 92 for hours.
“We were all out in the field with drinks and food for celebration. And then there was the long pause, and we learned that one had keeled over and died and had to be brought back to the factory,” Ed Wilkinson said.
The dream school was finally completed in 1991, and that’s been the site of the school since.
However, students venture far beyond the classroom.
Connecting children with nature and the world, the school community takes trips to the beach, parks and even outside of California. They recently studied “Old World Heritage” in England, Scotland and Wales, “Early America: Civil War to Civil Rights” through the deep South and “Westward Expansion” in Chaco Canyon.
“You wonder, do we have enough time in the classroom for academic excellence? We do. Our kids have gone on to excellent high schools and many fine universities,” Linda Wilkinson said.
Although the Wilkinsons have retired, their legacy lives on.
Last year, the community rallied together to pull the school out of financial straits after it converted to a nonprofit in 2016 and enrollment declined.
Parents like April Turner said the Coastside needs the school.
“I have a very biased opinion because deciding to send my son to Wilkinson was one of the best decisions we made,” Turner said. “It’s a very worthwhile opportunity for kids to have with a special relationship with learning.”
The Wilkinsons said they have a solid core of school board members and teachers.
“They’re really making it work,” Ed Wilkinson said. “We’re feeling confident that, like the little engine that could, it keeps going.”
At the Woo Fest, a band of alumni and parents took song requests, but one was a given. Everyone sang “Edelweiss,” the school song: “Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow forever.”