Founders of innovative school reuniting

Faculty and staff from the founding years of Thurston Middle School — a time when the school introduced an innovative curriculum — are gathering for a reunion Oct. 26.

"It was quite a close family and everyone was really tight," Gail McClain, who taught English at Thurston for 37 years, said of the Laguna Beach school's earliest employees.

Thurston Middle School opened in 1968 for seventh and eight graders and was a lab for an experimental curriculum that had students making their own schedules and picking their own classes each week.

"It was a really state-of-the-art undertaking," said McClain. "I could never duplicate that in the rest of my teaching career."

Thurston featured the innovative style for four years but switched to more traditional teaching methods after complaints that the style was incompatible with the curriculums of other local schools.

"It was pretty controversial in Laguna, because the high school was very traditional, and El Morro (elementary school) was very traditional," McClain said.

Wick Lobo, a 35-year-veteran of the Laguna Beach Unified School District who will be attending the reunion, was the scheduling coordinator for Thurston and created the flexible schedules using a giant IBM computer. Thurston was one of the first schools in south Orange County to use one.

He said that although some kids tried to schedule themselves too much recess time, the flexibility of the system had countless benefits, such as allowing teachers to create classes based on students' needs.

The days were made up of 27 modules of 15 minutes each, and students had to fill their schedules with core classes, such as math and English, and choose electives from among ever-changing options.

"The electives just blossomed; we had all kinds of electives," Lobo said. "The duration could be one week, a month or the entire semester."

Thurston was an innovation from the ground up since the school was built to match the flexibility of the curriculum. Lobo said the building was shaped like a honeycomb, featuring connecting pods with movable inner walls that could be arranged to fit large classes or multiple smaller classes.

From the building and curriculum to the specially trained teachers and IBM computer used for scheduling, the method pioneered at Thurston drew the attention of curious educators from far-flung places who wanted to learn about it.

"We would get a thousand people per year visiting our school," Lobo said. "They came from Japan, Germany and all over the world."

McClain said about 40 people will be attending the reunion. It will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 26 in the lunch area across from the pool at Laguna Beach High School.

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