The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School started the new academic year off with a warm welcome to new students from both near and far, new staff and new ideas.

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The cascade of events began at the high school last Thursday, with the start of an innovative conference that had in mind a group effort to assist all of the Valley schools with a single unified alliance for parents and teachers to complement the individual ones each school has.

The facilitators of the first Valley Wide Schools – Parent Teacher Association Conference netted a good showing of attendees on Aug. 9. “Parents are so instrumental to our children’s education,” said Kathy Vreeland, the PTA president at the high school in her opening remarks.

Noting that the Valley presents a unique educational environment – what with numerous districts funneling their students all into one school – Mark Swanitz, the principal, welcomed the parents in attendance and encouraged participation at the school.

He said he understood that in years past the school sometimes made parents feel their contributions concluded when they left their children at the door, but that was not the message he is sending.

In his early years in education, Swanitz learned that if the number of years one parent could stay home with the kids was limited, those years should be in high school. “They’ll do just fine in daycare,” Swanitz said. “But it is when they are in high school that they are making big life decisions” and need their parents to be more hands-on.

Swanitz, a Valley native, has strong ties with the high school. With his father participating either as a teacher, administrator or school board member for more than 40 years, Swanitz all but grew up on the campus. But he also has experience at other schools, including as principal at Dos Pueblos in Goleta. “We had an amazing PTSA at DP. They did so much for the school,” Swanitz said. The organization annually raised $40-60,000 which went directly into the classroom, often purchasing the equipment and materials the school – in this era of tight budgets – simply couldn’t afford.

Swanitz was surprised to learn the same wasn’t happening in the Valley. That, he believes, is because usually the same group of core parents follow their students from kindergarten right up through high school. At Santa Ynez, the parents at the high school come from all different districts and don’t have a history of working together.

“What we do have in common is that we all want the kids in the Valley to have the best education possible,” Swanitz said. That so many people showed up for the initial meeting confirms his belief that parents are ready and willing to work together to make it happen.

“We are on the right path, and this is just the start of what will be a massive collaboration,” Swanitz told the group. The group is tentatively planning to meet next spring during the Valley wide teacher’s conference.

The following morning, incoming freshmen stormed the campus with their elder classmen ready to provide tours, dole out advice and ease the terror sometimes associated with the first day of high school.

“It’s a little confusing because they’re not really in order,” said one guide to her group as they approached the portable classrooms. “But it’s OK. It’s not too hard to find your way.”

Tours were also given to parents of freshmen, who were treated to an entirely separate orientation process. Like their students, they had lots of questions, many focusing on how to assist their children without embarrassing them. Zoe Callahan, to the nodding smiles of friends Tristan Jackson and Daria Layva, said that her mom is sometimes full of “weird advice which is pretty random” and not all that helpful. Zoe was a little worried about not being able to find her classes the first few days – but that was before the tour.

The trio suspect their parents had feelings not too dissimilar from their own and were prepared for obligatory first day of school photos and perhaps a tear or two from the moms before being sent off for their initial day as Pirates.

The young men in the group were also a bit reticent about being thrown into their new environment, but were hoping to find a community of peers a bit more mature than the junior high crowd they left behind.

That new peer group will include 30 students from Denmark’s Niels Brock Copenhagen Business College who will be on campus for the fall semester. The group was officially welcomed by the city of Solvang on Aug. 13.

Telling the group of mostly 16-year-olds that there was a misprint in the program, Solvang Mayor Richardson said, “My name is Jim, and I want you to call me that whenever you see me.”

Paul Hanberg – both a long-time Valley resident and a Niels Brock graduate – shared his experiences and spoke of the value their education here is likely to yield.

Superintendent Paul Turnbull – noting “no good thing is done without many, many hands” – explained the caliber of education that the high school provides. Just because the school is considered among the top both statewide and nationally, doesn’t mean they can stop striving to bring new things into the mix.

He challenged the foreign attendees to be the next great step forward for the school. Steingrimur “Stein” Jonsson – who hails from Iceland – is game.”I am most looking forward to meeting the students,” he said. While they have a lot in common, they will also have a lot of new things to share.

Like Steingrimur, Frida Büchert said her parents are very supportive of her sojourn to “sunny fields” (Solvang in translation). She was eager to begin her studies both academically and socially.

All of the students are fluent in English, are paying housing and tuition and will return to Denmark in December.