Downer on the Farm

Controversy engulfs UCIs experimental elementary school

Photo by Tenaya HillsFor decades, the UC Irvine Farm School stood between Orange County's modernity and wilderness in every way. A group of idealistic, vaguely hippie University of California professors founded the experimental elementary school in 1969, frustrated with the stultifying horrors of public education. "We wanted a school where children would learn to do what finders and makers do, not just master more or less badly and mechanically some scattered things they have worked out," wrote Michael Butler, professor emeritus of social science at UCI and one of the Farm's original founders, in a 1995 essay posted on the school's website (www.farmschool.uci.edu).

Nearly 35 years later, the Farm School's vision continues to unfold. There are no grade levels—instead, children branch off according to age groups demarcated with cute nicknames such as the Little Kids (5-7 years), the Big Kids (8-10), and the 11-12 Upper Kids. Most remarkably, the Farm is literally that—next to a nursery, school grounds verdant with trees and crops, at the end of a street called California, just before it transforms from asphalt artery into unpaved back road leading into gentle hills. Classes are still held inside three refurbished olive-green farmhouses that date to the 1920s, back when the Irvine Ranch was still a ranch. No wonder the Farm School was once memorably described in the Los Angeles Times as "one of the '60s experiments that worked."

But in a county where simplicity frequently disintegrates under the progress of concrete and steel, it appears that the Farm is stumbling into the 21st Century. The roar of diesel trucks dropping off construction material for UCI's latest development mingles with the numerous distinct birdcalls warbling from trees. Unimaginative apartments and houses have sprawled across land that even five years ago was horse stables and honest-to-goodness wilderness. And the Farm School now seems to practice the sort of public-school acrimony Butler sought to avert.

This analysis comes courtesy of a lawsuit filed by Karen Minns, the Farm School's longest-tenured employee, having instructed there since 1983. The suit alleges that after Butler's retirement in 1999, new director Christine Lofgren embarked on a systematic pogrom against all teachers and programs from the Butler era. In an October 2000 staff meeting shortly after her hiring, according to court documents, "[Lofgren] stated to the staff the oldest teacher was to be fired because of her [age], stated she's overweight, out of shape, unhealthy and other personal discriminatory reasons and directed the staff not to tell the oldest teacher."

Minns protested vehemently against Lofgren's plans, especially after the three oldest teachers lost their jobs in accordance with the alleged scheme. And she alleges she was punished for her defense of the Farm. Gone was the university-subsidized apartment that Minns had inhabited for 16 years. Then a salary reduction. Then demotion from head teacher to mere senior teacher.

Frustrated, the 47-year-old filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Feb. 13. Department officials responded with their findings six days later: Minns had a right to sue UCI, the Farm School and Lofgren. She is seeking at least $6 million in damages.

Phone calls to the Farm School were not returned. Minns declined to speak to the Weekly on the advice of her lawyer. UCI spokeswoman Lori Brandt issued the following statement: "UCI has thoroughly reviewed all allegations of discrimination in Ms. Minns' complaint. We find them completely without merit and are confident this matter will be resolved in UCI's favor." The university asked the court to throw out the suit, but Judge Andrew Banks declined. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Some Farm School parents dejectedly admit that rancor now rules their beloved academy. Consider Martha Mecartney, a UCI engineering professor whose daughter graduated last summer after seven years at the Farm. By the past two years, Mecartney says she noticed a rise in tension at the school because of Lofgren's actions.

"I thought at the beginning that people were being far too critical [of Lofgren]," Mecartney said. She even wrote a letter to Dean of Social Sciences Barbara Dosher, who oversees the Farm School, asking that she "not be too hard on Lofgren. You have to give people a chance in their first year. But by the second year, another teacher left. Then a third. Then they started harassing Ms. Minns. That really concerned me."

After her daughter's graduation, Mecartney and a group of fellow Farm School parents met with Dosher to detail their concerns. Dosher quickly acted—issuing a letter reprimanding Minns for her complaints. This prompted parents to sign a petition delivered to Dosher, demanding that the Farm School stop harassing Minns. Mecartney also claims that 11 parents with children currently in the school have threatened to pull them out if Minns faces dismissal.

Mecartney admits not being particularly chummy with Minns. "She's nobody I would stop and chat with for an hour," Mecartney says. "She isn't that comfortable with the parents. But she has that certain conductivity with children. At the end of the year, when the graduation ceremony occurs and former students come back, who do they cluster around? Karen.

"People have a lot of love for the Farm school. It's a community," Mecartney continued. She and other parents are now raising money for Minns' legal defense. "We don't understand the new direction [the Farm School] is taking. We're afraid that if UCI wins the lawsuit and Minns leaves, the Farm School will become just another school."

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