When a Tree Falls: Giving Founder’s Oak a Second Life

The response to the fall of our mighty oak was swift and resounding: first, grief, then grit. How could we find a way to honor this tree by giving it another life? Alongside an outpouring of memories came a slew of ideas. Could its wood be crafted into something usable? Could those who loved the tree take pieces for themselves? 

A team was assembled to discuss exactly that. Chief Operating Officer Keith Powell, Middle School Head Lauren Railey, Carter Innovation Studio Director Cassie Kise, and Middle School English Teacher Charlie Raymond spent several weeks exploring how best to honor our beloved tree. Beyond this introduction to our first careful steps in repurposing the tree, a blog series will keep you informed around the status of Founder’s Oak.

The Science of Reclaimed Wood

An essential early step in the reclaiming process is curing. Wood tends to twist and check as it dries. A robust curing process allows wood to wick moisture and settle into its final shape and hardness, all while protecting against rot. Proper curing will yield bone-dry wood that won’t continue to change–wood that is ready for cutting.

“We think of wood as dry on the inside, but it’s actually pretty wet,” said Charlie, who worked as a furniture maker prior to becoming a teacher. “When you go to a store and buy a milled piece of wood, you’re relying on that wood to be straight so you can build something out of it. The best pieces will stay straight only if they have gone through a careful drying process.” 

A tree as large and complex as Founder’s Oak will yield cuttings of different thickness. While the smallest pieces are expected to dry over the course of a single season, the trunk and large branches might need to be stored for five or more years. At the end of this process, the dimensions of the cuttings will have changed. Additionally, some of the pieces we set out to cure may have been lost to rot.

“Our particular kind of valley oak–quercus lobata–can be difficult to work with,” Charlie continued. “We can’t predict how much usable wood our tree will yield. Every piece of it is important to try to get as much as we can out of it.” That’s why it’s so important that we be strategic at this stage in where and how we cut the logs to cure. 

Enter Nick Harvey of Bay Area Redwood, the expert we’ve hired to oversee the harvesting of the tree. Nick has been on campus managing a process that could span two months. “At this point, most of the smaller limbs have been separated from the main trunk. The branches off the main trunk are called “secondaries”. The largest ones are as wide as tree trunks themselves and will take years to cure. The smallest pieces will be the first pieces ready for processing.” 

Once all of the smaller branches have been strategically cut and cleared away, Nick will partner with Kyle Dowd from Golden State Portable Milling on the milling of the main trunk. “Milling day will be a big day. Maybe a big two or three days,” Charlie commented. “The actual cutting of the main trunk will be noisy, but we won’t schedule it for a weekend. We’ll schedule it for during the week so that the community can see and be a part of what’s going on. It will be part of student learning.”

A photo of Founder's Oak Tree taken at The Athenian School in Danville, CA
A photo of Founder’s Oak taken circa 2020

Speaking of Student Learning…

Summer conversations also focused on how to involve students in all aspects of recycling the tree, from these early harvesting steps, to curing, to cutting smaller pieces, and–eventually–to crafting. Though the viability of many ideas still needs to be assessed, one suggestion is to enlist students to help create proper storage conditions on campus and to have them oversee the curing of parts of the tree. 

“Rain is not an enemy of this process, but sunshine is. It can twist and warp the exposed side and not the other. A better technique is to find a shaded area to stack the wood with space between each slab so that air can flow. Sometimes, slabs need to be treated against insects. We could involve students in discussing what chemicals might be used to treat the slabs against decay,” said Charlie.

Carter Innovation Studio director Cassie Kise shared similar thoughts about timing for next steps. “People don’t realize how time-intensive fabrication is. As Americans, so much of the supply chain process is taken out of our purview that we don’t understand how long things take to make. It’s important that we employ patience and instill those values in our students as well.” 

Small branches from early cuttings, staged in front of the Carter Innovation Studio at The Athenian School
Small branches from early cuttings, staged in front of the Carter Innovation Studio

Though fully recycling the tree will take a series of years, discussions of early craft projects are also underway, as are more general discussions about how to better integrate woodworking into the curriculum. “Ultimately, the tree will dictate what we do with it,” Cassie continued. “Once we gain an understanding of the materials we have to work with, it’s our job to expand the conversation to other members of our community, especially students. We also need to emulate our values as an institution. For example, wood that isn’t used to craft an item might integrate with our ecosystem in the form of mulch. Finally, we need to honor the spiritual legacy of the tree–the nostalgia and love encapsulated within it and how that should play into its second life.”

Though he acknowledged the tragedy of losing the tree, Charlie also underscored that Founder’s Oak deserves our respect. “Overall, this should be seen as a great opportunity to build our profile as an experiential school. We’re already doing that in the Carter Innovation Studio, in the art department, in our middle school Focus Days, and in our electives. Working with Founder’s Oak represents a huge opportunity to reinforce this.”

Introducing Amy Rasner Clulow, Director of People and Culture

Just over halfway through her first year at Athenian, we sat down with Amy Rasner Clulow, Director of People and Culture, to learn more about her role and how it was created to support the school’s strategic priorities. The idea for a dedicated People and Culture position grew from the multi-year work on our strategic vision, Boldly Athenian and was formalized in parallel with a cultural assessment conducted last year. Amy joined the community in July to support the school’s culture work, namely the support, growth and continued development of our adult community. When asked about her priorities in this first year, Amy says, “I’ve been listening and seeking to understand the historical context and underpinnings of current employee experiences and organizational structures through an equity lens. My focus also includes supporting the retention and professional growth of our adult community and outreach and hiring efforts.” Amy has spent countless hours in listening sessions with faculty and staff and evaluating current systems and practices in both hiring and retention. She adds, “the path forward will require a combination of introspection and collective effort to dismantle systemic barriers to building and sustaining an authentically equitable and inclusive community.” 

While Amy’s role is focused on how our campus adults – faculty and staff – contribute to our school culture and sense of community, many stakeholders contribute to the culture of Athenian. “While my initial efforts focus on culture and community building for our campus adults, this extends readily to the broader Athenian community of parents and guardians, alumni trustees and former employees.”
As we begin hiring season, Athenian welcomes alumni partnerships in sharing job postings and referring candidates to our job board. Please join our Alumni LinkedIn group and watch for job postings in the coming weeks. 

More About Amy

Amy joined the Athenian community in July 2021 as the inaugural Director of People & Culture. She joins us most recently from The Hotchkiss School, a boarding and day high school in Connecticut, where she served as the Director of Multicultural Outreach for the admission office. In addition to her enrollment responsibilities, Amy served as a faculty mentor and student advisor and contributed to several working groups and committees, including Student Support, All Gender Housing, DEI Curriculum Review and Mission Review. Amy also served as the project manager on an institutional research partnership to reveal market position, utilizing the data to improve admission outreach and brand positioning efforts. She went on to lead the development and launch of the Hotchkiss Bridge program which provides transitional support for historically underrepresented students. 

Amy spent her early career working in human resources, specializing in recruitment and organizational development. She has carried her HR experience forward into each of her various roles since. Amy’s commitment to equity and inclusion has been a constant, anchored by her own interest in continued growth. Among her DEIS commitments, Amy launched and co-facilitated SEED for Hotchkiss and extended the program to neighboring public and private school educators. She also initiated and co-facilitated a white antiracist affinity space for Hotchkiss adults and serves as an affinity group leader for NAIS. Her past non profit engagement has included support for low cost K-8 enrichment programming (SOAR) and awareness building and support for victims of relationship violence (Women’s Support Services). Amy also serves as a mentor for families of transgender youth.

Amy received her BA from University of California, San Diego and her M.S.Ed. in School Leadership from University of Pennsylvania. She presently lives on campus with her partner, Mike, their youngest daughter, Frankie ‘25, and their older children, Hudson and Charlotte, when they are on break from college. 

2020 Kindness Challenge

By. Ananya Goel

The Upper School community is currently participating in a 21-day Kindness Challenge through KindSpring. 

Ten days into the challenge, I have felt that our community has been more present, more grateful, and more generous. Beginning my day with an act of kindness certainly puts me in a happier, more positive frame of mind that stays with me through the day. I hope that everyone is experiencing something similar. Around two hundred members of our community are now participating in the challenge, and I hope others will continue to join.

All participants will receive a daily email with inspiration and ideas, as well as the opportunity to share their experiences with one another and support each other along the way. In the following weeks, there will be some time dedicated to group reflection during Advisory (Friday Feb. 14th and Friday Feb. 21st). The challenge will culminate with a joint reflection to gather feedback and discuss other ways to create community around positive values. 

The idea of the Kindness Challenge is grounded in the belief that when we commit ourselves to cultivating certain values, we unleash a ripple effect that has the power to transform our lives and the world for the better. When we consistently practice these values together, our efforts encourage and reinforce each other in remarkable ways. Thank you for creating the time for students to meaningfully participate in the challenge. I hope you will join and participate as well. Please let me know if you need further information.

A quick check-in with AWE Co-Director Phoebe Dameron

It’s almost time for the spring AWE trip and Co-Director Phoebe Dameron and her team are immersed in planning. Students are preparing as well – those who are not currently doing a sport are in PE classes twice a week and all are gathering clothing, boots and other personal items that they will need on the trail. Athenian provides things like backpacks, sleeping bags and group cooking equipment. And — of course — lots and lots of food.

“We are ordering hundreds of pounds of food and packing hundreds of pounds of food,” Phoebe says.

Meals for 50 students can get complicated with food allergies, but planning ahead makes it possible to meet dietary needs. 

A total of 14 instructors will lead 5 groups of 10 students as they follow previous routes in the Death Valley National Park. “Following the same routes allows us to know what kinds of elements we might encounter and how to manage those safely,” Phoebe says.

There is plenty of work to do in the office, but Phoebe can’t wait to get back outside. “The best part of our job is to be out there, so that’s what excites me every time.”

Athenian Parent Educates Students About Toxic Compound Group PFAS

Dr. Rula Deeb, an Athenian parent and environmental chemist, talked to environmental science students today about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals known to cause a variety of cancers, ulcerative colitis and high cholesterol.

“I wanted students to know we had a person of this expertise in our community,” Upper School Science teacher Catherine Corey said.

Her students are studying both environmental health and human health and the presentation opened their eyes to a toxin in plain sight. PFAS is everywhere, and it’s not going away – the extremely stable compound is found in 99 percent of all American and Western Europeans’ blood. It latches onto proteins, so exposure can come from touching the chemicals but also from eating proteins like milk and eggs. Students were asked to do a PFAS count of items in their homes containing the toxin – clothing, carpets, food wrappings, and even the food they eat.

“So it was really both educational as well as alarming, because it’s so ubiquitous,” Ms. Corey said.

International Night at Athenian – Delicious Food and Fantastic Performances

International Night at the Athenian School was a huge success! An amazing meal followed by fantastic student performances made this a truly special evening. Thank you to all the parents for coordinating a beautiful potluck dinner and to International Student Coordinator Michelle Park and Choral Director Emily Shinkle for facilitating the talent show. Hats off to all the student performers who shared their talents with the school community.

Spotlight on Engineering: The Appliance Dissection Project

A dessert and hot chocolate reception was hosted this week on campus in the Carter Innovation Studio to showcase the work of Upper School students in engineering and architecture courses. Students taking 3D Art and Architectural Arts with Monica Tiulescu, and students taking Applied Science & Engineering, Engineering I, and the Art and Science of Making with David Otten, exhibited a range of projects. 

The appliance dissection project undertaken by the Engineering I class challenged students to understand the inner workings of a colorful range of mechanical devices. 

First, students were asked to individually choose an appliance that felt interesting to them. From there, each student was tasked to perform a careful dismantling of their appliance followed by an identification and study of how each component worked. In order to display their findings, students laid out each deconstructed item on a flat piece of cardboard and integrated written explanations of the purpose and function of each mechanical part into the display.

Items selected for dissection spanned several decades: a vintage radio, an Atari Video Pinball console, an Atari Super Pong console, a boom box, a soldering gun, a Black & Decker drill, a mouse, a color printer, and a digital camera were on display. Seeing the dismantled products side-by-side gave spectators the opportunity to observe key differences among the appliances. For example, the complexity and number of parts contained in a digital camera differed significantly from that found in a toaster.

Apart from the experience of dismantling a complex object and researching its components, learning also came from inviting students to think about what drives complexity in product design. The role that manufacturing capabilities and the availability of technology during any given era was also considered as a contributor to design thinking. Experiential learning is alive and well at Athenian thanks to our amazing faculty, students and the Carter Innovation Studio!

Athenian Students Get into Prestigious All-American High School Film Festival

Following the acceptance of their film into the All-American High School Film Festival, Olivia A. ’22, Frances F. ’22, and Caitlin S. ’22 reflected on their experience of making the film and seeing it screened in New York.

This past March, the three of us participated in the Filmmaking for Change March Term. We knew little about the intersection of activism and film going into this class and, over the course of the month, we learned the art of filmmaking.

Our film, Avoidable Trauma, focused on creating awareness around the effects of gun violence on school communities. The three of us have been passionate about this issue for a while and thought that media broadcasting would be a useful tool to educate others about this issue. We submitted our film to the All American High School Film Festival, which holds screenings in Times Square, where thousands of high school students gather every year to share their films.

Since we didn’t have any previous filmmaking experience, we were surprised to be granted the opportunity to view our film on the big screen, and once we found out that we were accepted, we wanted to do our best to attend. After working through many details, we finally got to go.

We got the opportunity to view so many incredible films and witness many students receive hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of scholarships to college. Even though we ourselves didn’t come away with an award, it was a privilege and honor to be able to attend such an inspiring event filled with many of the world’s future filmmakers.

It was also a good reminder to try something new, even if you have no experience because pursuing your passion through activism can change the minds of many. Activism can occur in many forms and is crucial to shaping the world of future generations.

Athenian Students Visit Pixar Studios

This October, ten Advanced Filmmaking students and their teacher, Peter Tamaribuchi went to visit one of the most successful film studios in history, Pixar Studios in Emeryville. They got an inside look into Pixar’s production process and their facilities. Here are the reflections of Katie S. ’22, one of the students who attended the trip.

When I first walked into the secretive Pixar studios, I was surprised by the familiarity of the place. I was greeted by rolling hills, soccer fields, park benches, and even a swimming pool, making me feel like I had just stumbled onto a college campus rather than one of the most iconic movie studios in history. Instead of the closed doors and endless rows of cubicles I had expected to see, I saw people riding their bikes around the halls, working collaboratively over a cup of coffee, and I felt an unspoken agreement to defy standard work expectations and focus on community.

From the annual scavenger hunts to the daily games of soccer, it was clear to me that Pixar had somehow found a perfect balance between producing incredible films and maintaining a happy, stress-free environment. But while those two may seem contradictory, it’s clear that they are like yin and yang: each essential to the other’s existence.

By focusing so vehemently on a stress-free environment, Pixar is able to cultivate a happy community, where employees can let their creativity flow without the stress and isolation of a traditional workplace. It is clear from Pixar’s unorthodox and obviously successful method that other companies and workplaces should follow its example and focus on the employee’s wellbeing rather than feeding off of stress and individualism.

Athenian Men’s Soccer Wins the NCS Championship for the First Time Ever

With a final score of 4-2, and after a nail-biting second half, the Athenian Men’s Soccer team won the 2019 NCS Championship on Saturday. The unprecedented victory was won on Athenian’s field with more than four-hundred spectators holding their breath. The campus was packed with scores of students, dozens of alums, and a healthy showing of supportive faculty; Owls fans were deep, and “The Nest” was on fire.

The team was up 2-0 at half time, with a fast goal from striker Eiki H. ‘21 and an aggressive finish from Fraser C. ‘20. Matt B. ‘22 secured a comfortable third goal early in the second half off a header. When the opposing team caught up with a quick two goals, things were looking tense. The Owls persevered and held their ground defensively with a strong line led by Nathan Mc C. ‘21, and Rushil R. ‘20.  It was the amazing ball passed by Rabee H ‘20 that Eiki H. ‘21 put into the back of the net that secured the victory.

Overall, it was a great season for the Owls, who only lost a single game and won the BCL League Championships outright. They went on to become league tournament champions and got the number one seed for NCS, which gave them the home-field advantage during the tournament journey. They thrived under the leadership of Coach Matt Zahner, and Assistant Coaches Adam Thorman and Anthony Aguilar ’14, and the full support of an Athletics department led by Darek Cliff and Josie Chapman.