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Most Valuable Parent: Arjun Sarkar, Open Alternative School

Helping launch the school's fundraising foundation is only one of his many contributions.

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Volunteering comes naturally for Arjun Sarkar, who has been heavily involved in Open Alternative School, where the younger of his two sons is a sixth-grader. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Nine years ago, Arjun Sarkar began sending his oldest child to a co-op preschool called Starr King Parent-Child Workshop, where, as he put it, children learn how to become model students, and adults learn how to become model parents.

At Starr King, volunteering in the classroom wasn’t optional; parents were required to do so at least one day a week.

Since then, volunteering has become second nature for Sarkar.

At the K-8 Open Alternative School on Foothill Road, where his younger of two sons, Nakos, is a sixth-grader, Sarkar spearheaded a group effort to turn the school’s informal parent organization into an official nonprofit organization called the Open Alternative Educational Foundation.

As a foundation, the school is better able to raise money. For instance, the status allows it to offer tax write-offs to donors. Also, foundations can raise money for teacher salaries; PTAs can’t.

Every year for 27 years, the school has held a fundraising student triathlon by Ledbetter Beach. That and other fundraisers such as auctions and rummage sales earn enough money to pay a specialist to run the school’s garden program, in which the students farm the produce for their lunches. It also pays for the theater teachers who lead the process of putting on 10 plays every year at the school, one for every grade. What’s more, it funds the school’s sizable environmental education component, in which students take field trips to see the state’s various ecological settings: the foothills, the beach, the high desert, the Sierra.

“What attracted me to OAS is … the open classroom — they want parent volunteers in the classroom,” he said. “So, from being in Starr King going direct to OAS, it was a natural progression.”

Decades ago, Sarkar, 39, was among some of the first graduates of OAS, which has been around for about 33 years. Still, sending his children to the school wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

However, after shopping around, Sarkar and his wife, Jill, were impressed not only by the school’s high rate of classroom volunteerism among parents but by the informal structure. At OAS, students refer to teachers by their first names, and there is no principal — only a head teacher.

“I really think that early on in their development they see OAS as part of their community and family, because they see parents so involved in the classroom,” he said.

Sarkar also has gotten involved politically.

Although the school has been around since 1975, it didn’t have a permanent home until 2006. Instead, it was located “temporarily” on the campus of La Colina Junior High School. In 1998, Santa Barbara voters approved a facilities bond that included building a new elementary school campus that also would serve OAS is the Hidden Valley neighborhood, but the plan never worked out, in part because of declining enrollment across the district.

The impermanence of OAS’ home caused some consternation among parents, leaving them worried that the school eventually could be kicked off the campus.

By the time Sarkar started getting involved in 2000, there was some friction between parents at the school and district higher-ups. Sarkar eventually became part of a core group of parents from the school who worked to mend fences with the Santa Barbara school board. He served on a committee that took a broad look at how to make best use of all the district’s properties.

Figuring out what to do with the campus was more difficult than it sounds. With La Colina growing past capacity, other campuses shrinking and yet another campus moving across town altogether, the school board was charged with piecing together a complicated puzzle.

In 2006, after six years of meetings, the school board voted to allow OAS to stay on the La Colina campus permanently. “We felt that was a victory,” he said.

In addition to his fundraising and political efforts, Sarkar, like many OAS parents, also has volunteered in the classroom. Like many of the school’s parents, he has participated in what is called “choice day.” On this day, students are allowed to check out classes that often are taught by parents. Often, the parents teach about their own areas of interest, such as cooking or pottery.

Sarkar, who works as an alternative-fuel fleet technician at UCSB, is passionate about his career, which began 17 years ago, long before “sustainable” became a buzzword.

He has brought in videos showing children hydrogen technology, as well as a plastic model of a fuel cell. 

Sarkar’s volunteerism isn’t confined to Open Alternative School. When his older son, Abhi, was at La Cumbre Junior High, Sarkar served as that school’s PTA vice president. (Abhi is now a freshman at San Marcos High.)

These days, Sarkar serves on the board of directors for the Fairview Gardens organic farm in Goleta, and is the coordinator for the Green Car Show, a feature of the South Coast Earth Day Festival.

Sarkar says it’s important for children to see their parents volunteering in the schools.

“By participating in school and having our children see us as volunteers,” he said, “school (becomes) not just an entity that we are sending our kids to, but part of a community.”

MVP: Arjun Sarkar

School: Open Alternative School; kindergarten through eighth grade; 227 students

Location: The back of La Colina Junior High School, 4025 Foothill Road, Santa Barbara.

Write to [email protected]

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