Decker School Was an Important Part of Malibu's History
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
While the City of Malibu considers whether it can successfully separate from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, many longtime Malibuites are reminded that Malibu's first school managed on its own for more than 40 years and the relationship between the two communities has never been entirely comfortable, despite the word "United."
In 1980, Los Angeles County rejected a bid made by Malibu residents concerned and angered by the closure of Point Dume Elementary School, among other issues, for a separate school district. Subsequent secession attempts made in the 1990s and in 2004 were also unsuccessful.
Malibu joined the Santa Monica School District in 1953. The decision was controversial with some residents, even then, suggesting that a separate district would be preferable.
Before 1953, Malibu students K-8 shared a traditional one-room schoolhouse in Decker Canyon.
Then under the aegis of the Los Angeles County School System, students had access to Los Angeles County library materials and, according to an article in the now-defunct Santa Monica Evening Outlook, dated 1955, "help from the Los Angeles County office was given in art, music, physical education, child guidance, speech correction, health problems, and audio visual education."
The article chronicles the history of the Malibu school, which opened in 1911 in a temporary building described as hardly more than a barn. The schoolhouse was completed the following year, on property contributed by the Decker family, who owned most of the canyon that still bears their name.
According to the Outlook, enrollment varied from just seven to just over two-dozen.
Helena Weaver began teaching at Decker in 1926 with 15 pupils.
"Over the years since I first began teaching there has been a decided change in teaching practices." Weaver is quoted in the Outlook. "In the past it seems to me that more attention was given to teaching the fundamentals and not so much to social activities and physical education. There were not so many subjects to be taught and the program was not as flexible as at the present time. Of course in this type of school, with only one teacher and eight grades, it has been necessary to stick to a pretty rigid schedule."
Until 1939 there was no bus service for Decker students. Children walked to school or rode horseback.
Fires threatened the Decker Schoolhouse in 1930, '35 and '55.
Weaver recalled her experiences with all three wildfires at the school.
"The most exciting events that happened in this area since I've been here were the fires of 1930 and 1935. When the first fire came there was much concern and excitement but the experience was not as terrifying as that caused by the fire in 1955," she said.
"The first fire was not accompanied by wind so it approached more slowly and was stopped before reaching the school. The most exciting thing during that ordeal was the encampment of the Los Angeles Forestry Department. in the school yard. During their stay there was more attention given to what was going on in the school yard than what was going on in the school room.
"The night before the  fire started a terrific wind started blowing and continued during the next day. On the day of the fire during the recess period at 11 a.m. we spotted a puff of smoke in the northeast. The puff began expanding rapidly until a huge, black cloud spread over the sky and began to approach very fast.
"Some of the parents began arriving at school because of concern over the advancing fire. Men who had been working on the road came to the school to see if we needed help.
"Later we were very glad for their assistance. They climbed on the school roof and kept it wet so the sparks from the oncoming fire would not ignite it. The mothers and I got wet towels ready in case we might need them when the fire came through."
Two homes near the school were destroyed by the '35 fire. The families were evacuated to the schoolhouse until accommodations could be found for them.
Popular Malibu legend involves a resident ghosts at the old school following the'35 fire.
By 1948, the post-WW II building boom was in full-swing on Point Dume and in Malibu Park. Malibu's population, which was in stasis during the war years, grew exponentially.
The increased demand for schools resulted in the construction of Juan Cabrillo—originally Zuma Mesa—Elementary School in 1955, followed by Malibu Park Junior High, Point Dume Elementary and Webster Elementary schools in the 1960s.
There were 26 pupils when the school—the last one-room schoolhouse in the area—closed its doors in June of 1955.
"They will continue their elementary schooling next September at the new Zuma Mesa School, now under construction," the Outlook article concludes. "A modern school with modern classroom facilities and most of all a school that has individual classes for individual grades."
Observers suggest that if Malibu forms its own school district, the self-contained, historic Decker School, which provided a good education to two generations of Malibu residents despite limited resources and an isolated location, could be an inspiration.
WINDOW ON THE PAST—Decker Canyon School opened in 1911. By 1928, when this photograph was taken, the schoolhouse, complete with water tower and bell, had 18 pupils of all ages from kindergarten to eighth grade. In addition to providing a comprehensive education, the school house, like its contemporary counterparts, served as an evacuation center during wildfires. Before Pacific Coast Highway opened, graduates of the one-room schoolhouse usually traveled to Oxnard to attend high school. Santa Monica High School was founded in 1884, and the current school site opened in 1906, but the trip to Santa Monica was an all-day expedition for Malibu residents. Photo courtesy of Emerson MacGregor