It may look like a giant expanse of weeds and thickets, but to Darren Lawlor, it’s a blank canvas.
In eight months, crews will break ground, transforming the desolate field off Palomar Airport Road into a state-of-the-art athletic center, complete with a basketball auditorium and outdoor soccer/lacrosse field.
This is just another step in Lawlor’s plan to build an athletic program from scratch at the new Pacific Ridge School, an independent, nonprofit school in Carlsbad.
“It’s been a challenge to put together all the moving parts,” said Lawlor, who was hired as the fledgling school’s athletic director in June 2007 before its first year of instruction. “We’re very blessed to have all this land in North County.”
Lawlor, who was part of the 1983 NCAA-champion Syracuse lacrosse team and who coached at Harvard, first heard about the alternative 7-12 school from a brochure in the mail.
The former coach, whose son was in fifth grade at the time, did some research online and decided to attend a seminar, where principal Eileen Mullady outlined the school’s mission and curriculum.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, this woman hit the nail on the head of what education is all about,” Lawlor said. “I was amazed with what she had to say about the school.”
After the seminar, Lawlor approached Mullady, asking her about plans for the athletic department.
“I said, ‘By the way, what are you doing for athletics?” Lawlor said.
Several months later, Lawlor left his job at Callaway Golf to become the architect of the Firebird athletic department.
Because of Lawlor’s background in lacrosse, a sport which is gaining popularity in California, it was one of the first teams added to the program, along with soccer, volleyball, cross country and tennis.
The Connecticut native hopes to add basketball and baseball in the next few years.
“Eventually we’ll have a full gamut of CIF sports,” Lawlor said.
Pacific Ridge will go into its second year of existence with more than 200 students — doubling its enrollment from last year when the school enrolled only seventh- and ninth-graders.
By 2010, Lawlor expects the school’s enrollment to be around 550 students. He said athletics are central to the institution’s growth.
“Some kids wouldn’t consider coming to a school without an athletic program,” Lawlor said. “I think it’s a viable piece. Colleges aren’t just looking for kids who spend all of their time in the classroom.”
The Firebirds’ young program has already experienced some success. Freshman cross country runner David Hines won the Frontier League championship in his first year of competition.
All Pacific Ridge’s high school teams compete in the Frontier League, which consists of six Division V schools, while the middle schooler athletes compete against private schools from all over San Diego County.
Unlike conventional schools, Pacific Ridge students have a say in what sports the athletic department will adopt.
“We do a survey to get a pulse of what (the students) want to do,” Lawlor said. “We want to get an idea of what the interest level is.”
Much of the school’s methodology differs greatly from that of traditional schools.
First of all, you won’t find a traditional student desk at Pacific Ridge. Classes, which consist of no more than 15 students, are conducted at large oval-shaped tables.
This kind of set-up, Lawlor said, promotes participation from everyone in the classroom.
Pacific Ridge also teaches environmental awareness, which is glaringly absent from most school curriculums.
Perhaps most impressively, the entire student body was taught Mandarin Chinese in 2007. The school year was capped off with a trip to China, which Lawlor attended.
“I wish I had an opportunity to go to a school like this,” he said.
The next generation will have that opportunity, as Lawlor’s son will start the seventh grade at Pacific Ridge in 2009.
Reach reporter Matt Crosson at (760) 752-6744