Before Our Time: Desert Sun School

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For nearly a century teaching and learning have been major activities in and around Idyllwild. Among the schools and camps responsible, one of the most interesting was the Desert Sun School, which for 44 years occupied the campus that now houses Astrocamp.

“Desert Sun” seems an odd name for an institution nestled in a mountain forest, but it’s an artifact of the school’s origin.

During the 1920s, newlyweds Edith and Richard Elliott were starting their family on a ranch in Coachella Valley near Mecca. As their two children approached school age, Edith’s unhappy experience teaching in the local school suggested that the Elliotts might do better home-schooling them.

Three other families agreed, and in 1929 under the desert sun, Edith embarked on a year’s experiment with five children, teaching at one of the homes that had playground equipment. Word got around and others clamored to join up.

So Edith enlisted her sister, Helen Jayne, as a colleague, and a little tent house was erected at the Elliotts’ ranch. The instantly successful school was launched with 12 pupils in 1930. Before long it needed more space, and a second ranch was purchased.

Desert Sun School’s future was foretold when the Elliotts added a summer camp at High Castle on the low ridge separating Saunders Meadow from Idyllwild village. The camp’s popularity soon outgrew the premises. After three summers at Herkey Creek, the Elliotts leased 40 acres on Saunders Meadow, a site so inviting that in 1944 they bought it.

Maintaining three locations was expensive, so the desert properties were sold, and in 1946 Desert Sun School moved permanently to Idyllwild.

Living facilities were built for students and growth continued. In 1951, the school began a transition to a high-school program, ultimately discontinuing course work below eighth-grade level. Purchase of surrounding lots and homes expanded the campus to 93 acres.

Desert Sun seemed especially compatible with Idyllwild developer Claudius Lee Emerson’s original vision for a family friendly community. In the Elliott philosophy, boarding school was an extended family, fostering spiritual individuality, responsibility and moral values, along with academic learning.

This atmosphere appealed to celebrities, as well as parents with “difficult” children. The alumni roster became studded with such names as Sinatra, Lockheed, Linkletter, Astaire, Carmichael and Sellers.

Richard retired from teaching in 1968, but remained a trustee and active participant in Idyllwild community affairs. Edith continued as headmistress until 1971 when she retired shortly before her death.

Financial hard times of the 1970s soon caught up with Desert Sun. By 1983, resident enrollment had fallen from its targeted 250 to 156, plus 32 commuting Idyllwild students.

A decision was made to change the school’s name to The Elliott-Pope Preparatory School, honoring equally the founders and the family that lately had kept it afloat financially.

But enrollment continued to decline, dropping to 100 boarders and 30 commuters by 1990, when Elliott-Pope finally closed its doors. The campus was sold to Guided Discoveries Inc., which inaugurated Astrocamp in 1991.

 

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