Philosophy of Independent Thinking Permeates Ojai Campus

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Once upon a time, there lived a spiritual leader.

He came from India and discovered the beauty of Ojai on his many travels across the globe.

Every year, he returned to the pastoral valley's oak groves, speaking about Eastern-oriented concepts: holistic health, critical inquiry, noncompetitive atmospheres, the environment, emotional stability and social responsibility.

Today, students and staff embody these ideas at the private Oak Grove School, one of nine independent-minded campuses worldwide founded in 1975 by the late Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Teachers and pupils say that though theirs is not a fairy-tale world--they fight and cry and sometimes fail tests--they are strongly committed to creating a better world.

In that vein, a handful of high school students got together a few years ago and brainstormed on how to "green" the Earth, a notion dear to Krishnamurti.

The result: Last year, the students printed and published a 28-page handbook called "Schools for a Sustainable Future: An Environmental Planner for the School Year."

"I'm interested personally in making a difference on campus," said one of the brochure writers, Alisha Musicant, a 17-year-old with a flowered skirt and buzz cut. "I want to make people aware. I really care about the environment and too many people just don't."

Teaching Others About Environment

The booklet offers step-by-step information on how to conduct radon tests, check for lead in the water, make soil healthier, cut down on trash and create compost piles.

Students plan to distribute sample copies to about 70 schools throughout Ventura County this year, in the hope that other students will be interested in starting their own environmental clubs, compiling the data and sharing the results.

This fall, Oak Grove School is set to host an environmental conference, where organizers hope to inspire others to join the project.

The project's advisor, parent Nancy Scanlan, is proud of her students and even more pleased with the approach of the school.

"I like their philosophy. They try new things and take visionary steps," she said.

Many of the 160 students at the school don't even know they are practicing the teachings of the school's founding father.

Krishnamurti would have wanted it that way, said Mark Lee, director of the Krishnamurti Foundation in Ojai. Krishnamurti didn't want followers, he wanted people to think on their own.

Consistent with Krishnamurti's views on inquiry and questioning, the school does not subscribe to any creed. His books are not taught on campus and no one is required to even "be interested" in Krishnamurti, according to the school's statement of philosophy--which, like every piece of school paper, is photocopied on both sides of the sheet to save resources.

Although the school is definitely nontraditional, Oak Grove lessons, from kindergarten through 12th grade, are grounded in science, math, literature, art and real-life learning, teachers say.

In the last three graduating classes, the average verbal SAT score has been 566 of a perfect 600, the math score 575. Some of the 30 high school graduates since Oak Grove began offering secondary classes eight years ago have been accepted at Bard, Barnard, Bates, Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Pepperdine, Stanford, Vassar and University of California campuses.

Translating Lofty Words

Tuition for the average high schooler is $10,000; full-time elementary school starts at $5,300. At least 30% of the students take advantage of partial scholarships.

Much of the curriculum is inspired, if not directly derived, from Krishnamurti's teachings. He stressed intellectual depth, environmental sensitivity, social responsibility, emotional stability and physical vitality.

But Krishnamurti never said exactly how to achieve these goals--he wanted people to figure it out on their own.

So, school administrators translated his lofty words into classroom lessons such as these:

* Each year, seniors take a five-week class trip to India and England, visiting their Krishnamurti sister schools and learning about poverty, politics and other people.

* Elementary students camp in the woods for a week at a time to learn about wildlife and edible plants. The eighth grade takes an annual trip to Baja California, Mexico, to swim with baby whales.

* Students are not allowed to bring disposable juice boxes or Styrofoam soup cups for snacks--food must be brought in thermoses or reusable containers. Food is organically grown at the school and students must share in serving and cleaning up the meals.

* Teachers are called by their first names, because they are not regarded as authority figures, but rather, equals in learning.

* If students miss even one problem on a test, they must see their teacher to find out how to correct it. They are allowed to keep taking the exam until they get it all right.

* Special round rugs are laid out in each classroom for "morning circle," where students vent, share and discuss any feelings they might have before their day begins.

* Although the school has soccer, volleyball and basketball teams, competition is discouraged. Instead, students cheer others' accomplishments, even if it means rooting for the opposing team.

"I always tell my friends, we sucked but we would always get the sportsmanship award," said a laughing 19-year-old Rowan Frederick, a former student who played soccer at Oak Grove.

Declared a Messiah

Krishnamurti was born in southern India in 1895, the son of a man who belonged to a group called the Theosophical Society. The society's leader, Annie Besant, declared the 9-year-old Krishnamurti a messiah. But Krishnamurti grew up and rejected the society, declaring a deep dislike for cults and organized religion.

Though he spoke to thousands of people, wrote at least 50 books and has 3,500 video and audiotapes in his name, he never thought of himself as a god or guru, Lee said.

Krishnamurti, who died in 1986 at age 90, came to Ojai in 1922 after he heard that the dry valley air might help his brother's tuberculosis. He returned every year speaking under oak groves in the rolling green hills off Lomita Avenue, the same spot where the school now stands.

Two decades ago, with a group of Ojai residents, Krishnamurti envisioned and established the Oak Grove School, the only school he founded in the United States. Eight other Krishnamurti schools exist: seven in India and one in England.

He also helped to create several other schools, including Happy Valley School in Ojai.

Teachers and students acknowledge that problems exist on the Oak Grove campus, a lush expanse of 150 acres including log cabin classrooms, wild grasses and trees. The people who go there are human, not Disney characters, they say.

Some kids dress in earthy garb. Other students wear trendy T-shirts, dye their hair yellow and sport pierced body parts.

On a recent day, as students piled up their lunch plates with organic vegetables grown in the school garden, one exasperated teacher told a colleague about how antsy her third-graders were. "I just wanted to tear my hair out," she said.

But even negatives that crop up at the school can be turned into valuable, Krishnamurti-like lessons.

Former Oak Grove student Frederick recounted such a story: On a school camping trip, two friends of hers went off in the woods to smoke pot. When discovered, the girls were sent home for a week and the rest of the students met weekly to have "philosophical discussions" about why this might have occurred, Frederick said.

Instead of being expelled, the girls were allowed to return to school and join the group talks about why it was not appropriate to use drugs.

"I know that especially one of the girls really felt closer to her teacher after these discussions and learned to address what was not OK about what she did," Frederick said.

Attending Oak Grove helped Frederick in her own way, she said.

"Oak Grove helped me challenge the myth of authority," said Frederick, now a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts. It's easier for Frederick to visit her professors during office hours than it is for her peers, she said. "Some of my friends are scared to go, but I feel more comfortable."

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