Longtime Lagunitas teachers retire early

07/08/2020

Two teachers in the Lagunitas School’s Open Classroom have retired after 30 years, marking the end of an era for the alternative education program. The resignations of Marlene Maiello, who taught kindergarten and first grade, and Larry Nigro, who taught second and third grade, were accepted by the school board last week. It was a tough decision for both teachers, who are in their 60s. Approaching retirement age, they both felt inclined to leave because of Covid-19, which both poses a health risk and makes teaching more difficult, especially in the freedom of Open Classroom. 

The retirements leave a big hole for the younger grades, and the school is losing a bridge to its past. Both teachers joined the program in 1990, Ms. Maiello as a parent and Mr. Nigro as a teacher, and both plan to help out at the school when it is safe to return. “It’s a difficult time, because you don’t want to leave when you can’t have a real ending of school,” board president Steve Rebscher said. “You can’t have a going away party, you can’t see your last group of students. All we can do is really appreciate what they have done over the years and appreciate them for being instrumental in building a wonderful program.” 

Engaged educator

Mr. Nigro moved to Marin in the '80s, feeling handcuffed as a teacher at a traditional school and wanting more time to bike. Inspired by Herbert Kohl’s “36 children,” about an empowering teacher working in an impoverished New York public school, Mr. Nigro was always interested in alternative education. He started at Lagunitas School as a substitute teacher, working alongside program founders such as Sandy Dorward and Judy Voets. Ms. Dorward taught him how to give words to kids when they didn’t have them, and Ms. Voets taught him how to connect with parents emotionally. “I had to learn that it was okay to link what was happening at home and at school,” he said. “How can we work as a team to help the child—not just with learning to read, but also that the child is learning to be a person, a more independent person—how can we work on that together?” When Open Classroom expanded to four classes in 1990, Mr. Nigro was hired. It wasn’t an instant and easy transition from a traditional school to the freedom of Open Classroom, but he slowly learned to individualize instruction, set boundaries and give kids more responsibility. He launched a poetry reading event and put on theatrical productions, and the school supported his love for the outdoors, allowing him to take students birding and on hikes. He had found his career home. “It was just an incredibly beautiful place, and there was no other school where I could work with kids like that,” he said. He learned conflict resolution and how to get the most out of parent volunteers, both central tenets of Open Classroom. He was a teacher’s union leader, advocating for better pay and keeping the school public. In his early years, Mr. Nigro said that Lagunitas School underpaid its teachers, and many good ones left. The teachers decided to run a school board candidate, and although their candidate didn’t win, the campaign had its intended effect: the board approved a 13 percent salary increase that year. Teachers who lived in the valley could now more easily work in the valley. Over his 30 years, Mr. Nigro said he saw an evolution in how the Open Classroom operated, with an increasing focus on academics, but the focus on emotional growth remained. Looking forward, he plans to keep supporting the school, as retirees have a tradition of returning to volunteer. He senses a need for extra help, perhaps in the form of individual tutoring, because teachers and students will be challenged by Covid-19 restrictions. “The place was such a home, such a family place, that no matter what, it was so hard to leave,” he said.

Feels like home

Like all children, Ms. Maiello’s daughter grew up curious and eager to learn. But when it came time to learn to read in first grade, her daughter shut down from the stress. Ms. Maiello accompanied a neighbor from San Anselmo to see the Open Classroom, and she decided to switch schools; it was an instant fit. “After two days, my daughter said, ‘Oh Mommy, this feels like home, and these people feel like our family.’ She was pretty smart,” Ms. Maiello said. She followed a trend of parents becoming teachers at Lagunitas School, and her younger son later attended. Ms. Maiello had previously taught in New York and at an alternative school in San Rafael, but her student teaching hours didn’t transfer to California, so she wasn’t planning to pursue the field. But after volunteering in Open Classroom, she decided to complete her student teaching there. She became a sub, then a half-time teacher, then a full-time teacher in 1997. Working with the younger kids was her forte, and as the kindergarten teacher, she was responsible for introducing families to Open Classroom. Her goal was to keep learning fun. She explained parent volunteering, conflict resolution and cooperative board games to parents, helping them find their niche. Parents who knew about nature took kids on hikes, parents with carpentry experience helped kids build, and parents who made clothes taught weaving. Over the years, Ms. Maiello observed Open Classroom become more structured in response to outside pressure. She always approached reading instruction by teaching readiness in kindergarten, so that kids could learn to read in first grade. But recently, parents of kindergarteners wanted to know when their child would be able to read. “In the old days, there was more faith that we’d get to those milestones,” she said. Another change she fought against was the placement of walls between the classrooms about five years ago. Previously, each classroom was separated by a counter and connected by a walkway, so the school truly felt like one open classroom. But teachers agreed that the building was loud, and the school decided to put sliding walls between each room. Ms. Maiello and Mr. Nigro both fought the change, preferring to coordinate quiet times, but they were unsuccessful. Looking forward, Ms. Maiello hopes that the spirit of Open Classroom can remain despite Covid-19. Much of her teaching involved social learning and play, with students building together or experimenting together, and although each teacher had their own class, students frequently moved around with other teachers. “I just hope that the Open Classroom comes through this, because I think it’s a jewel. Particularly at this time in education, we need more places like the Open Classroom,” she said.