Founder Paul Squibb instituted a “needs not wants” policy in 1932 and the phrase became a core philosophy for the school, proving its worth to generations of students.
Natural wonderland. Working ranch. College preparatory school. Rarely mentioned in a single sentence, much less united in a dynamic enterprise, these terms accurately describe a venerable institution quietly flourishing in the rural hinterlands of Los Olivos.
Midland School, a coeducational boarding and day school serving grades 9 through 12, is located on 2,860 pristine acres of foothills and woodlands bordering Figueroa Mountain Road. Since 1932, its dedicated faculty has offered rigorous coursework and lively field trips—combined with indelible lessons in self-reliance—to students drawn from around the world.
“We produce students who are conscientious, global citizens,” says Karen Readey, Director of Communications at Midland School. “When I think of alumni from this school—there really isn’t anything they can’t do.
“They’re handy,” she continues, “they can fix things, they can take care of themselves, do their laundry, work on a team, care for others, care for animals and the environment. And they’re active, engaged learners.”
Midland’s requirements for graduation include four years of English, three of math and a foreign language, two of history and laboratory science, and one of the visual or performing arts, as well as several units of elective subjects and completion of a senior thesis. Classes, held six days a week, emphasize scholarship, field studies, love of the outdoors and individual responsibility.
Articulate self-starters, Midland students consistently demonstrate a zest for learning and a respect for others forged in the school’s tight-knit community of students and faculty members, most of whom live on campus. While teachers reside in small houses with their families, students share redwood cabins equipped with basic furniture and wood-burning stoves for heat.
“There’s no faculty directly watching us in our yards,” says sophomore Aidan McMurry. “The seniors are responsible for us. We like to be a student-run area, and it gives them a leadership role before going to college.”
Sophomore Phoebe Stokes explains, “There’s no TV and the students are not allowed to have movies in their cabins. We have nearly 3,000 acres of land, and they want us to be out and about on the property.
“And who wouldn’t want to be?” she smiles, gesturing to a sweeping view of oaks, sycamores and magnificent Grass Mountain in the distance. “It’s beautiful here!”
Life at Midland teaches students the fine art of living simply and recognizing the difference between needs and wants. Harvard graduate Paul Squibb with his wife Louise founded the school and opened the campus during the hard years of the Depression. They sought to impart “honest, essential values within a rigorous academic curriculum,” while encouraging students “to get on without,” a creed that remains in place.
“Our motto is “Thinking ahead since 1932,” says Readey. “In addition to rigorous college preparatory academics we have a strong environmental program, an organic garden, and we focus on sustainability. We’ve been recycling for years and reusing since the school was founded, emphasizing responsibility to oneself and community, and I think our whole society is shifting back to that.
“It seems the pendulum is swinging back the other way,” she adds, “and we just keep doing what we’ve always been doing.”
In addition to their academic responsibilities, Midland’s students perform daily jobs essential to the operation of the school itself. These jobs, which range from cleaning classrooms to washing dishes to running the student bank, engender a sense of belonging, accomplishment and ownership of the school.
“With the job system,” Stokes explains, “we try to be independent. We have students teach other students how to get along and do their jobs well.”
Students change jobs each semester and, for now, McMurray serves in the critical position of bell ringer.
“My job is centered on the clock,” McMurry declares with a wry grin. “Essentially, the whole school depends on my job.
“I could have been a day student,” he continues, “but I thought it’d be better to board, because living here and having a job, that’s the whole experience of it.
“You see every side of the people here,” he adds, “and definitely of yourself, too. You become more familiar with the students and the faculty. You’re so close to the faculty, they’re like your parents, and that connection is good, too.”
On Sundays, after a hearty breakfast of pancakes and eggs, the seniors gather students into four-or five-person crews to tackle weekly jobs, such as gathering and chopping wood, sprucing up the campus, making repairs or mucking out the corral, each of which takes about two hours.
The rest of the week, Midland students begin their day at 6:45 a.m., with classes commencing at 8 a.m. and ending nearly seven hours later. After lunch, they can play volleyball, soccer, basketball, lacrosse or run cross-country (depending on the season), ride horses or work in the organic garden that supplies much of the school’s fresh produce.
Teacher and ranch manager Ben Munger, a 1979 Midland graduate whose father served as the school’s headmaster 30 years ago, tends the eight-acre garden year round.
“I’m a faculty member, but I work in the summer, too,” Munger says, “because that’s the main growing season here. In the fall, we hardly buy anything for the kitchen, it’s all fresh stuff from the garden. Things like lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions, peppers, leeks, and in winter, broccoli and cauliflower.
“We pick as much as we can and freeze it,” he continues. “The students help with that, and then we just shake it out and cook with it.
“We also make jam and raise our own meat,” he adds. “We have steer and we raise pigs, too, because they eat the excess food from the kitchen.”
A fully-accredited, non-profit corporation, Midland School employs 20 teachers, maintains an enrollment of about 90 students and features a unique curriculum that blends coursework with hands-on ecological practices. As a working ranch, it also provides students with a visceral link to the land and its rhythms.
In 2009, Midland won California’s highest environmental honor, the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, (GEELA). Out of 2009’s fifteen recipients of the award, Midland was the only school. Its creative, energetic teachers are consistently singled out for recognition, and its students acknowledged for their charitable works, from fundraising to provide relief in troubled areas of the world to helping needy families in Santa Barbara.
“Midland has stuck to its mission,” Munger says. “In the boom years of the ’90s, when other places were expanding and growing, we were motoring along.
“Midland is an institution that embodies American traditions that value lifetime learning and being conservative in spending and investment. We’re a stable place, and that’s good for kids, too.”
Unlike most of the nation’s high schools, Midland can boast that 95% of its graduates go on to college, many of them enrolling in selective institutions such as Stanford, Occidental, Princeton, Wellesley, UCLA, Williams and Cal Berkeley.
“It takes good character to get into Midland,” Stokes reveals. “If you’re an interesting, lively person, they’re more likely to want you within the community. It also has to do with academic standing and having a desire to learn.”
McMurry, who moved to the Santa Ynez Valley with his family a few years ago, describes his entry into Midland.
“My parents and I loved Midland instantly,” he admits. “Living here was a big change, but I definitely love it. As with anything, it’s not utopia. There are things that I may disagree with here, but I get along and it all works out.
“I’m pretty content with what I want to do when I grow up,” he continues. “I’m looking at USC for cinematography and I’m very interested in music production, recording arts and audio engineering.
“Now,” he adds with confidence, “I’m independent and ready for college.”