Petaluma’s Spring Hill School celebrates culture, traditions of faraway lands

Hiram Ibarra, left and Jose Elias of Music Academy, play cultural tunes at the International Day Festival at Spring Hill Montessori School in Petaluma, Oct. 27, 2017 in Petaluma. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017


Harper Dean Holte is only 4 years old, but he’s already quite the globetrotter. The Petaluma boy has gone ice fishing in Antarctica, visited a teahouse in Japan and sampled delectable world cuisine.

The youngster has a passport detailing his excursions around the world, adventures provided right on the Petaluma campus of his Montessori school, The Spring Hill School.

Family members and staff have been working together the past month to share the culture and traditions of faraway lands.

The global studies culminated with the 25th annual International Day Festival, an opportunity to celebrate diversity, “visit” homelands around the world and sample food like Swedish meatballs, Asian pork-fried rice and sweet Venezuelan quesillo, a kind of flan.

“It’s the best kind of celebration,” said Harper Dean’s grandmother, Joanie Blechel, a retired Forestville schoolteacher. She was impressed with the series of classroom presentations and projects that led up to the festival.

Parents, grandparents and other relatives visited classrooms during October to share their heritage by reading stories from their homelands, displaying photographs and mementos and telling first-hand tales about how people live around the world.

As a highlight of the global unit, students in the toddler and kindergarten programs dressed in traditional costumes of their ancestral lands or opted to sport fashions from countries of interest. The students presented their outfits in an opening parade, as Trio Mariachi Los Reyes from Vallejo performed “Cielito Lindo,” a popular Mexican song also known as the “Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay” song.

It was fitting music for the independent school, which offers bilingual English-Spanish instruction in all its classes. The Spring Hill School, including two campuses for older students through middle school, incorporates diversity and global awareness throughout its curriculum for all 150 students.

The student body includes children from around Sonoma County, northern Marin County and Napa Valley.

“A big thing for us is to teach children to see and feel and honor diversity. We feel that’s where peace starts,” said Spring Hill’s Head of School, Shaharazad Hamidi. “Empathy is at the heart of everything.”

Hamidi, who has lived on three continents, said school families represent 25 to 30 different nations. She was born in Iran and lived in Paris before moving to Petaluma in the 1980s. Hamidi speaks Farsi, French and English and, along with Spring Hill students, is learning some Spanish.

She said students and their families take great pride in sharing their cultures.

“It lets them honor their heritage,” she said. “For us, it’s all about connection. We want them to really appreciate and enjoy diversity.”

Parent Marina Madick of Petaluma was among the families hosting eight booths during the festival, stamping passports for the young travelers and sharing displays and activities.

Madick’s booth featured colorful matryoshka wooden nesting dolls popular in Moscow, where she’s from, and intricately painted Russian vases and ornaments. She also offered treats from her homeland, like sushka sweet bread rings, often served for dessert.

Across the school courtyard, the Azari family of Petaluma hosted a booth from their native Iran, with detailed textiles and artwork on display. Children sampled juicy, vitamin-rich seeds from pomegranates, a fruit cultivated since ancient times in Iran.

Pari Azari made a traditional Persian gown for her 2½-year-old granddaughter, Ariana, from shimmering fabric from Shiraz. Ariana modeled the gown in the opening parade, along with classmates wearing Japanese kimonos, Scottish highland dress, Mexican sombreros and ponchos, German lederhosen, Viking hats and Hawaiian-print shirts and dresses and floral leis.

Parent Jenna Moore of Petaluma visited the displays with her daughter Fiona, 3, who wore a traditional Chinese dress with a complementary pink hair adornment and pink dress-up shoes.

Moore was one of “so many people,” she said, who helped plan the day of cultural celebration. She appreciates the diverse community at Spring Hill and hopes the monthlong studies and festival help instill an appreciation of diversity in her daughter.

“I hope she would appreciate we have different ways of doing things,” Moore said, “and that diversity is normal.”

Barbara Pappas, who teaches 3- to 5-year-olds in the school’s Bluebirds class, is hopeful students come away with “tolerance, acceptance and awareness.” Classroom activities addressing different skin tones and basic needs of the world’s people reinforced that “we are all the same yet we have differences,” Pappas said.

Karen Tarver, Hamidi’s executive assistant, enjoyed watching another generation of children celebrating the International Day Festival. Her four grown children attended the school, as did Hamidi’s 32-year-old daughter. Both staff members started out as volunteers at the school, where diversity has long been embraced.

Spring Hill has sister-school relations with schools in Mexico and India. Spring Hill’s elementary and middle school students have raised funds to assist students attending each of the two schools, and some students have visited the campuses through cultural service exchanges.

Older students also participated in special international studies throughout October.

Bridget N. Anderson, Spring Hill’s director of admission and strategic initiatives, said what’s most impressive about the celebration of diversity is that “it’s really year-round.”

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