Dr. Surber of Laguna Blanca Lower School

By Sigrid Toye   |   May 31, 2018
The Laguna Blanca Head of Lower School Dr. Andy Surber, with Keenan, Mary, and Logan

As I entered the parking area on the Laguna Blanca Lower School campus, everything looked as I remembered it at the end of the 2016-17 school year. Children were happily playing, staff were all present and accounted for, spring flowers could be seen placed artistically in the carefully pruned landscaping that surrounds the perimeter of the office. Nothing seemed out of place – even though the campus is in the middle of Montecito, at the center of what had been that “once-in-200-years event”: the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history, and the ensuing debris flow that followed.

From the welcoming smile that greeted me from Darla McDavid, assistant to the head of the Lower School, not even a ripple was noted about the last few difficult months. Naturally curious after having spoken with other Montecito administrators, I knew there had to be a story as to how the students, staff, administrators, and parents of Laguna Blanca Lower School were able to find their way to the pastoral setting that greeted me both outside and inside the school office.

Head of the Lower School, Dr. Andy Surber, was kind enough to take time out of his busy day, quickly morphing from a tour of the school with a prospective parent, to guiding me upstairs to his office overlooking the campus, for an interview.

Adjusting his signature bowtie, Dr. Surber admitted that it had been quite a year. “Not something one could plan for, that’s for sure,” he notes, “but here we are, safe and sound, thanks to so many kind and generous people who stepped up to the plate to help us along the way.”

Abandoning the Campus

As the Thomas fire crept west from its path of destruction in Ventura, great plumes of smoke and ash announced its coming. The administrators of both Laguna Blanca campuses met to plan their next move and head of school Rob Hereford decided the most prudent course of action would be to close both campuses several days in advance of the upcoming winter break. The children had been wearing masks or confined to their classrooms, and even the Surber family in Goleta found breathing the smoke and ash-filled air intolerable and opted to leave for a few days themselves.

“The entire situation was scary for everyone,” Dr. Surber recounts, “regardless of where they lived, because of the capricious moods of the winds and the uncertainty of the fire’s direction. The webcams on campus,” he recalls, “tracked the glow of the fire as it crept over the mountains, the fallen ash looking just like snow. It was hard and very emotional to see the effects of the fire.”

The threatening Thomas Fire, the largest such wildfire in California history, loomed just north of Laguna Blanca Lower School campus

When the blaze actually arrived in the Montecito area, the firefighters, as the first responders, were in every corner of the community to protect as many structures as possible. “The advantage our school had was that we could see the fire coming and act accordingly – and those firefighters were absolutely terrific… they were just everywhere! I couldn’t be more grateful,” recalls Andy.

As the winds finally changed direction, combined with the hard work of the thousands of firefighters, it was deemed safe for workers to enter to begin the massive cleanup. Winter break allowed the crew to have full range of the campus, both inside and outside of the classrooms. The campus was then prepped for occupation after the break to begin classes as usual.

At least that was the plan…

The Rains Came Down

School was in session for only four days before warnings from the weather service predicted a massive rainstorm. Dr. Surber and the administrative team decided, for the safety of students and staff, to close the school ahead of the storm. “I was put in touch with Ellen Barger with the Santa Barbara County Education Office who had developed a plan with Rob Lewin, head of Santa Barbara Office of Emergency Management. All the local schools were called to a meeting about the potential danger of the anticipated storm. We were told that eighty-five to ninety percent of the watershed had burned and they were unsure of the total amount of rainfall… but predicted up to six inches,” Andy says.

The weather on Sunday and Monday, before the disastrous rain event in the early hours of January 9, was chamber-of-commerce perfect. There certainly was no indication that the weather would disintegrate as quickly as it did. “That night, around three in the morning, the bells outside our house were ringing like crazy in a fierce wind! From the wind and text alerts, I knew something really bad had happened and turned on my police scanner for dispatches. I learned that first responders trying to access Montecito couldn’t get in because it was inundated with mud and debris. Hearing the area being isolated was frightening, and I was concerned for the well-being of our families and felt helpless not knowing what had happened in the area or to them,” explains Surber. He noted that the most heartbreaking thing he heard on the scanner that morning were dispatches to reach certain homes and to find them no longer there. 

The Thomas Fire looked even more menacing when photographed at night at the same campus corner

The next day, a Lower School team including the head of Upper School, Dr. Lolli Lucas, and head of Middle School, Steve Chan, reached out to make contact with the Laguna Blanca families and staff. A map was created to find the location of each household, and calls were made to establish that all were present and accounted for. Fortunately, they were able to reach everyone.

Girls, Inc. to the Rescue

On January 12, arrangements were made for all the students and faculty who could make the trip (the Montecito corridor of the 101 freeway was flooded and impassible, and the 192 in disrepair) to gather on the Upper School campus in Hope Ranch. “I felt it was important to keep our families together and to reconnect after the disaster. The following week,” Dr. Surber continues, “we met on the Upper School campus again as a school with as normal a schedule as was possible. I don’t have enough words of praise for the flexibility of our teachers and parents, not to mention the staff of the Upper School, during this period. As awesome and accommodating as everyone involved was, I knew we would need to find a place where we could spread out and create a situation as close to our own school environment as possible.” 

Dr. Surber and his team began a search and eventually settled on the beautiful Girls, Inc. campus on Hollister Avenue. Runs were made back to the Lower School campus, now in the mandatory evacuation zone, under the supervision of the Sheriff’s Department to gather materials and books, even transplanting desks and chairs for the children. “If it hadn’t been for Barbara Ben-Horin, the CEO of Girls, Inc., and her open-armed welcome, assistance, and flexibility, the move would have been impossible. She and her amazing staff made us feel at home with the use of the entire facility. Girls Inc. gave us space and the time to remain as long as we needed, thus avoiding the inevitable frequent evacuations that would have caused further emotional stress on our children had we moved back to campus sooner. I am so grateful to Barbara and everyone at Girls, Inc.”

Back Home Again

After over a three-month absence, on April 24, the children spent their first full day on their own campus in Montecito. “We were all so relieved to be back home,” exclaimed Andy, “and to have survived in one piece and as well as we did. There are so many people who helped us along the way: the firefighters, the entire Laguna Blanca community on both campuses, our teachers, parents, staff, the wonderful people at Girls, Inc. and so many other acts of kindness bestowed upon us.” 

The 2017-18 school year is Dr. Surber’s fifth as head of Laguna Blanca’s Lower School. Andy came to Laguna Blanca in 2013 from Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Tennessee, where he held the position of head of Lower School for four years. He also has elementary teaching and middle school leadership experience at Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley, Arizona, and at Dakota Elementary School in Dakota, Illinois. He met his wife, Mary, a teacher at Laguna Blanca Lower School, when they were both child development majors at Rockford University in Illinois and, as fate would have it, have taught in the same schools ever since. They have two sons, both at Laguna Blanca, Keenan in ninth grade and Logan in seventh. 

I left the campus full of admiration and awe, seeing how the events of the past few months seem not to have impacted the school at all. Andy’s final words perhaps say it best: “To think of how many people stepped up to help us and bent over backward to make sure we were comfortable. I would have never known these wonderful people if we hadn’t had to work through this common experience… I’ll always be so grateful for the help, guidance, and support of everyone connected to our expanded Laguna Blanca community.”


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