‘Old School’ Liberty enjoys modern success

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Liberty School is old school.

Founded in 1857, Liberty School is the oldest school in continuous operation at the same site, with the same name in Sonoma County. More than that, it is old school in curriculum, teaching methods and feeling of community.

The school’s mission statement says, in part, “Liberty School has one specific goal: for each student to reach his or her highest potential as one individual in a community of learners. We take our goal seriously, understanding that basic skills in reading, math and writing are essential to success.”

The philosophy, practiced on a campus that is small, functional and perhaps the most beautiful in the county, has brought Liberty state and national acclaim.

Last year, Liberty was named both a national Blue Ribbon School and a state Distinguished School.

Liberty is also the highest scoring elementary school in the county and ranks among the top 25 in California on the state standardized test.

Originally founded as a community school for the rural dairy-ranch families in west Petaluma, Liberty School has never strayed very far from its roots, despite the technology revolution, the advent of Common Core Standards education curriculum and the popularity of the school that now brings in 40 percent of its students via inter-district transfers.

“We are a little old school when it comes to what we feel is important,” acknowledged Liberty Superintendent/Principal Chris Rafanelli.

He said one of the keys to Liberty’s success is that it keeps doing what it does well without making huge changes as curriculum and teaching methods evolve.

“Our strategy is to make small changes without changing the principles that have allowed us to be successful,” Rafanelli said.

While the principal and the staff are proud of their test scores, they aren’t the top priority of the Liberty principal and school staff.

“What’s really impresses us is when junior high and high school teachers tell us how successful our kids are on the next level. If we prepare the kids for the next level, then we have done our job,” the principal said.

That philosophy, along with retaining its small-school culture, has also allowed Liberty to be extremely popular with waiting lists for all classes.

“People like our culture and the small-school environment,” Rafanelli noted. “We have high standards both academically and culturally, but we allow the students to stay kids a little longer. Parents feel like Liberty is a little like the schools of their childhood.”

Liberty’s student growth is limited by its physical size. Not only is the school one of the smallest in the county in terms of enrollment, but also one of the smallest in physical size.

But, what the school district has done with the space available borders on the amazing. The school has managed to pack all the amenities of larger schools — playgrounds, hardtop, turf field, plaza — in such a manner that none looks crowded. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is the innovative ways the school has augmented modern play structures with use of non-traditional, but kid-popular items like tree limbs, barrels and even concrete conduits for crawling through.

The kindergarteners have their own play area, complete with a water fall and a turfed hill they can roll down if they prefer that mode of transportation to the more traditional kindergarten-sized slides.

While the campus makes Liberty appealing, what makes it fun is the people. “Our staff is fantastic, many of the teachers stay with us until they retire, and some come back as volunteers after they retire,” said Rafanelli. “It is the people that make the difference.”

The staff is one of the reasons Liberty has chosen not to provide students with iPads on a 1-to-1 basis. “We believe in investing our money in people over technology,” the principal explained.

That doesn’t mean that Liberty doesn’t make use of technology or teach technology. There is an excellent computer lab and students use iPads in the classrooms every day.

There are also digital white boards and other technological tools for teachers. But the bottom line at Liberty School is that students and staff come first.

It is old school, but the results speak for themselves.

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