Legacy, Spirit & Promise - The Story of Warren-Walker School

“There’s a school by the seashore that is very dear to me ...”  So begins theWarren-Walker School song that was written in 1934. The words still ring true for the thousands of students who have attended the private school — an institution of Ocean Beach and Point Loma — over the past eight decades. The story of Warren-Walker School is really the story of one woman’s belief that every child should be given a well-rounded education — not just in traditional academics but also in art, music, drama, foreign language, physical education and character development. It would be “an education that would be acquired through daily work and play and an education that would be a source of joy and strength.”

That belief belonged to Nellie Warren-Walker, a fourth-generation teacher who came to San Diego from Kansas in the late 1920s. She was married to Capt. E.A. Walker, head of the history department at the Army and Navy Academy, then in Pacific Beach. Nellie was listed as a “homemaker” in the 1930 U.S. Census. By 1932, upon the death of her husband amid the Depression, she found herself a widow trying to raise two daughters. To make ends meet, she began tutoring a 17-year-old boy who was failing his history class in a public high school. Nellie soon realized that although her student was intelligent and motivated, he had somehow passed through the system without learning to read. Using her expertise in phonics, a teaching method that was shunned at the time, Nellie not only taught her student to become a proficient reader but also how to pass his other high school classes with flying colors.

After hearing that success story, Frederick H. Kraft of Ocean Beach asked Nellie if she would tutor his son, Freddie, and another young boy, Franklin Baker, both of whom were failing in public school. Kraft offered Nellie an upstairs room in his commercial building at the corner of Newport Avenue and Bacon Street in Ocean Beach. The building was home to Strand Radio Co. and Kraft’s Rexall Drug Store. Because the building housed not only Kraft’s pharmacy but other medical offices as well, word spread quickly among the doctors in the building about the gifted teacher. By 1933, Nellie could be seen leading a line of children from the Kraft building to the foot of Newport Avenue, where she would teach them science and physical education on the beach. The children’s parents were seeking an alternative form of education that the public schools did not offer. In 1932, the only public elementary schools in the area were Ocean Beach, Loma Portal and Cabrillo, and their curriculum was geared to teaching the basics and not much else. The private Lomaland School on the hill was the only place on the peninsula that offered a more balanced school opportunity. But with the recent death of its founder, Katherine Tingley , that school was nearing the end of its run.

It had never been Nellie’s goal to start a school. But by 1934, with 60 students using several rooms in the Kraft building, she knew it was time to make a move. She explored the streets of Ocean Beach looking for the ideal location. She soon found a small house and an even smaller cottage on a large lot at 4867 Santa Cruz Ave. It was there that she settled and, with the help of her daughters, Ruth and Grace, continued to guide and nurture her young students. The daily curriculum included building, painting and maintaining the playground equipment, planting a large garden — the harvest of which would be used for preparing healthy lunches — and daily walks to swim at Crawfish Cove, the little beach at the foot of Santa Cruz Avenue. A pet show where children could take their favorite pet became an annual event (one boy brought a monkey, a girl brought her burro!). Another activity was the May Day celebration in which the children donned their fanciest clothes and danced the traditional Maypole dance. The No. 14 train, OB’s beloved streetcar, clattered past the little school throughout the day. “I remember the racket the streetcars made,” OB businessman and former student Ned Titlow told a San Diego Union reporter in 1982. Titlow recalled that along with all the outdoor fun the students had, the academics were just as important. “Back then I thought the greatest disaster that could happen was being called into Mrs. Walker’s office and being told that I wasn’t working hard enough,” he said. “Fortunately, it didn’t happen to me!”

Warren-Walker School kept growing, and by 1939, Nellie knew it was time to move again to a larger spot. Wanting to remain near the beach, she was able to buy a sizable lot at 4605 Point Loma Ave., where she had a duplex built. The little cottage from Santa Cruz Avenue was moved to the new location, along with most of the handmade playground equipment. A larger garden was planted, and several hutches of rabbits adorned the new schoolyard. When the 1940 Census rolled around, Nellie was finally listed as a teacher. The census also stated that she worked 45 hours a week 52 weeks out of the year. Needless to say she was tirelessly devoted to her students. For the next 40 years, Warren-Walker School continued to thrive. Successfully directed by Nellie and later by her daughter Ruth Sweeney, the school became fully accredited by the California Association of Independent Schools.

During World War ll, Warren-Walker became a temporary boarding school for children whose parents were in the military. In the 1950s, Nellie acquired a large woody station wagon (the kind surfers drove) to provide transportation to children who needed it. Teachers who were trained in phonics, which had become a desired method for teaching reading, were hired. The drama, music, foreign language, physical education, art appreciation and character development programs flourished. The garden grew and the bunnies multiplied. New buildings were added to the campus, and the annual pet show and May Day celebration continued as popular traditions.

“The school, unlike the times, has changed little since it opened,” Titlow said. “The concern and expectation of each student is still there.” By the early 1980s, Nellie was no longer running the school, though she did have access to all the phone calls that came in, as she had a direct line in her home. Sweeney, who had taken over, needed a capable headmaster or headmistress to step in and take charge.

She needed someone who, like her mother, understood the importance of a well-rounded education, someone who was passionate about teaching children, knew how to garden and liked bunnies.  Ray Volker far surpassed all the necessary requirements and was quickly hired. A graduate of UC Berkeley with a double major in sociology and economics, Volker had been an educator at San Diego’s Francis Parker School, where he had received  the Teacher of the Year award 10 years in a row. His rapport with students and parents was unmatched. His philosophy of teaching was “to make a child’s journey through 20 percent of their life the best it can be.” It was, and still is, heartfelt and honest. Volker is now the co-owner of Warren-Walker School.

When Sweeney retired in 1988, Volker enlisted the help of his wife, Pamela, current co-owner and headmistress of Warren-Walker School. With a degree in both psychology and special education, Pamela Volker had been teaching in Escondido, where she was becoming disillusioned by the constraints and bureaucratic nature of a large school district. With her nurturing disposition and innate common sense, she knew, as Nellie had, what was best for kids. “A rich learning environment makes life good,” she told us. ”Children learn better when offered well-rounded life opportunities. Mr. Volker and I have built on Nellie Walker’s philosophy of consistently offering multifaceted educational experiences to our students.” Warren-Walker School has experienced significant growth since the Volkers came on board. There are now four Warren-Walker campuses in San Diego County. To help place their graduating fifth-graders, the Volkers opened a 30,000-square-foot middle school in Mission Valley that allows students to switch classrooms each period and experience a fully departmentalized program that includes Spanish, concert band, drama, art, interscholastic sports and information technology. A second lower school was added in La Mesa, as was an Early Learning Center in Point Loma, serving infants through pre-kindergartners. Of course, the little school by the sea on Point Loma Avenue continues to grow.

I was lucky enough to spend the last 13 years of my career teaching kindergarten at Warren-Walker’s Point Loma campus. At a time when public schools were sticking to a scripted, one-size-fits-all curriculum, Warren-Walker was like a breath of fresh air. Nellie had laid the foundation for a rich, well-rounded education for children. The Volkers had built on that foundation, allowing us teachers to create, enhance and tailor the curriculum until we got the perfect fit for our students. It was the most joyful teaching of my life. If Nellie could come back and see all that has been accomplished through her vision, she would smile. If she could hear the shouts and laughter of today’s students on the playground, she would smile. If she could experience the atmosphere of kind and courteous behavior, the excitement in the learning and the joy of the students as they carry on the old traditions that she started, she would smile. She might balk momentarily at the sound of the airplanes overhead, so much louder than the clickity-clack of the old trolley cars, and she might be overwhelmed by the astounding amount of technology the children are learning. But in the end, she would smile knowing that she is still making a difference.