Menlo News September 05, 2023

Cultivating Community, Right from the Start

All Menlo School students kicked off the new school year with a chance to bond and build connections with teachers and classmates.

The heart of Menlo is close, supportive, and trusting relationships: between students and teachers, and between students and their friends. Grade-level retreats are a core part of this experience and are more important now than ever. They provide a chance to get outside the classroom and bond with classmates and teachers in the great outdoors. Students build trust, feel safe, take risks, and come back to campus individually and collectively stronger than when they left.

“We know that when students feel a sense of belonging and have a positive relationship with their teachers and peers, it leads to better academic outcomes,” says Assistant Middle School Director, Mima Takemoto.

So why wait?

For the first time ever, all Menlo School students in grades 6-12 kicked off the new school year with a spirited overnight retreat or engaging outdoor ed day trip, all within the first week! Classes and athletics were paused, allowing students to be fully present and utterly immersed in the activities and experiences. “The intent was to start the school year off with the opportunity to build community and reconnect—or connect for the first time—with advocates and classmates,” says Upper School Assistant Director, Adam Gelb.

On the first day of school, immediately after the opening assembly, sixth graders headed to Redwood Glen Camp and Conference Center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Naturalists at Large (NAL), an organization that provides outdoor education programs to many independent schools, put together an exciting and challenging two days of activities, taking full advantage of the scenic campus’ swimming pool, volleyball and basketball courts, hiking trails, cabins, and central dining hall.

Seventh graders enjoyed a two night community-building Outdoor Ed Trip to Camp Arroyo, nestled in the hills of Livermore. Trained staff led a full itinerary of “challenges by choice,” including a variety of invigorating, engaging, and creative activities. They said the scenery was stunning!

Eighth grade students and faculty paddled their way through Elkhorn Slough on an adventure with the experienced guides at Kayak Connection. Focusing on teamwork, community building, school spirit, and fun, the crew came back both exhausted and energized for the year ahead.

On August 28 and 29, kicking off the first full week of school, all Upper School students engaged in their overnight class retreats.

The ninth grade class began its Menlo journey on-campus, by participating in a community engagement opportunity, team-building activities and sleeping under the stars. They ended the retreat with a hike around Stanford Dish Loop.

The sophomores, meanwhile, could be found gallivanting around Santa Cruz, setting up home base at Happy Valley Conference Center and competing in an Amazing Race at the Beach Boardwalk! From the adrenaline rush of the roller coasters, bonding at the beach, and s’mores around the campfire, this retreat truly offered something for everyone.

YMCA Camp Jones Gulch in La Honda welcomed Menlo’s Junior Class. From “authentic leadership” programming and goal-setting activities to “choose your adventure” opportunities (think archery, pool, climbing tower, zip line, friendship bracelets, basketball, gaga ball, field games, a naturalist hike, and more), there was never a dull moment. Before heading back to Menlo, mindfulness meditation, nature contemplation, and yoga helped students recenter and reflect on time well-spent.

The seniors launched their final year at Menlo with an overnight at NatureBridge Golden Gate Retreat Center in Sausalito, strengthening their class identity and charting their legacy as school leaders. (The “sandcastle showdown” was a definite highlight!) New Senior Class Dean, Justin Carunchia, considered the retreat “an opportunity to foster a culture of success, connection, and unity, while ensuring our Menlo seniors feel supported and empowered for the journey ahead.”

While the planning and logistics required to pull off six individualized and inspiring retreats for nearly 1,000 people during the first week of school were monumental—from site reservations and transportation to permission slips and programming—the hope is that the impacts will be positive and profound.

“I loved having the retreat at the beginning because it set the tone for the year and demonstrated how great our grade can be. Additionally, the bonds we built at the retreat will really pay off during the remainder of the school year,” reflects Paige Miller ’24.