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.”

Faculty Play Pokémandala Go

Ever wonder how Athenian faculty get ready to dive back into the school year? This year, we played Athenian-themed Pokémon Go! Which really means we had an elaborate scavenger hunt on campus framed around the Mandala, our blueprint for quality education. Just as we ask our students to get out of their seats and/or put their hands and minds directly on the materials, our Deans of Faculty designed an opening game that would get us moving, talking, feeling, and thinking. Activities included writing a haiku about the Center for the Arts, singing a ditty about the Dase Center, calculating the number of people who could lie down in the Peanut (the grassy area in the Middle School), taking a selfie with the AWE Gate, and writing a poem about the School’s campus and land. We thought we’d share some of the creative thinking that came out of our talented Upper and Middle faculty in just one short hour. See how many types of thinking and learning you can count.

Haiku About the Center for the Arts

Shine paint into fire
Sway bodies cheek to moon
Here we mold desires

Hands oozing in clay
Bodies swirling to the dance
Creating magic

Metaphor made real
Heads hidden among the trees
Student legacies

Lights and camera
Songs, music of the ages
Dance sculpt create live

Sound Movement Beauty
All of you joined In this house
Alas, no parking

Building late at night
Dancing, singing, creating
Gather and reflect

art lives here always
reflecting what’s in our souls

Clay bust enigma
Dancing acting and building
Magic happening

Methods for Calculating How Many People Can Fit in the Peanut

17 Esteban leaps across the length of the peanut, 10 Esteban leaps across the wide part of the peanut, roughly 4 people per leap, we estimate 500 – 680 adults lying down with an average person height of 5 ft 5 inches.

333 adults will fit in the peanut lying down.
9 yd radius
5 yd radius
We calculated the approximate diameter of each of the two approximate circles of the peanut. We assumed a person takes up one square yard.

Our answer is 378 people. Lying on the ground, we figured that a person fit in a square yard. We paced off the two circles of the peanut and averaged the two to find roughly a rectangle of 27 yards by 14 yards. Since our yardage is easy…one person is one square yard…out 378 square yards means 378 people.

We used computational thinking to separate the problem into parts and then wrote an algorithm to compute the solution.
3.14 x 27 squared
= 2289.06
2289 + 594+157= 3040
Avg human height = 5 ft 6 inches
3040/7.15= 425 people

350 adults (average 5.5 ft grand 1.5 ft width) lying on their backs, minimum, adjusting for curves, tree and rocks.

We think 380 adults could lie down in the peanut. We added and averaged all our guesses.

340 people
Method: Took nut, made it into 2 circles. Found area of each. Added together. Estimate area of average person. Divide.

The Land

golden rolling sacred
ground squirrels

So many stories
What’s truth?

Monte mistranslated mountain, thanks invading Spanish.

Blessed abundance
Invaders besieged
Global redemption

Alluding Spaniards; Murrieta’s hideout; inspiring growth.

Devilish beauty; “nothing gold can stay”

Mountain breeze
Our Home

Morgan Fire: Photos and Emergency Plan Update

Now that the fire has been contained and Mt. Diablo State Park has reopened, the School decided we could share student and faculty photos taken from around the Bay Area. Additionally, Eric has included information about emergency communication plans in the works.

Day 1

Photo by Sarah (Martinez)


by Sam Tierney ’16 (Alamo)

Photo by Trevor Grauman (Danville)

by Trevor Grauman ’16 (Danville)

Photo by Sam Tierney

by Sam Tierney ’16

Photo by Sarah (Martinez)


Day 2

Photo by Dave Otten (on campus)

by Dave Otten (on campus)

(on campus)

Photo by Laura Victorino (San Ramon)

by Laura Victorino (San Ramon)

Students sign thank-you's to the firefighters

Students sign thank-you’s to the firefighters

Thank you to firefighters

Emergency Response Update

Athenian was alert and responsive through the duration of the fire. Head of School Eric Niles and CFO Khira Ghriscavage were in close contact with fire personnel throughout the week. Notices were sent to parents via email as new information was discovered and athletics was cancelled once due to air quality concerns. Emergency plans were in place should the school need to evacuate; fortunately, classes were able to continue and no evacuation was necessary .

However, Athenian is always looking to improve on its systems. The School currently subscribes to emergency alert notification technology through Connect Five, an emergency broadcasting system. The School is in the process of creating a system that will allow all members of our community to receive phone and text updates. Before this can happen, several databases will need to be created with accurate information. Please stay tuned for more information as the School rolls out this new program.

Dorm Makeover

The girls’ and boys’ dorms had a makeover this summer!  With the help of Athenian parent, interior designer, and facilities committee member Christin Hoult, the common areas of the dorms were transformed into beautiful and relaxing spaces for the boarders.   Improvements include new paint, large comfortable couches, inviting papasan chairs, and wall decor that the students can personalize with pictures.  Thanks for the care and attention put into the homes for our boarders, Christin!

Thank you also to the entire facilities team: Nathan, Jen, JC, Carl, Vicente, Roberto, Steve, Renee, and Christina for improving and maintaining our campus to support educational excellence and comfortable living!


Students, Faculty, Alums Involved in Campus Master Planning Process

The Athenian School is undergoing a campus master planning process involving an architecture firm, the board of trustees, and a large contingent of Athenian community members.  This past Friday, students, faculty, alumni, parents, board members, staff, etc. sat down with the architects, a student-built model of the school, and a bunch of tracing paper to share their vision of the Athenian campus.

Here are a few of the many, many exciting ideas* that came out of the session:

  • Interdisciplinary classroom pods
  • Shifting the center of campus to integrate the Middle School by clustering more dual-use buildings around the Dase Center
  • A subterranean classroom
  • Bringing the creek that runs under the campus back up to the surface
  • Yurts in the “Back 40” (the undeveloped 40 acres behind the main campus buildings)
  • Designating a building as free space, to be left as a blank slate for students and classes to use for projects
  • Opening up the Middle School into the current back faculty and bus parking lot
  • Creating a shared building for the Maker’s, Science, and possibly Art disciplines
  • There were a variety of ideas about altering the entrance to the school, from reversing the flow of traffic to creating a second entrance
  • And much more!  If you have your own ideas about how to improve our campus, feel free to share them here in the comments section and we will pass them on to the committee.

[AFG_gallery id=’5′]

*Please note that at this stage, these are visionary ideas only.  Practicality, cost, etc. will be analyzed by the architects and board to determine the best campus master plan for Athenian’s foreseeable future.