The Athenian School

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Not to be confused with the The School of Athens.
The Athenian School
2100 Mt. Diablo Scenic Blvd.
Danville, California
United States
Type Private
Established 1965
Head of school Eric Niles
Number of students 455
Mascot Owls
Colors Terra Cotta and Earth

The Athenian School is a college preparatory and boarding school located in Danville, California. Athenian educates students in grades 6-12 on a 75-acre (300,000 m2) campus at the base of Mt. Diablo, located near San Francisco in Northern California. Athenian was founded by Dyke Brown (1915–2006) in 1965.

Athenian is composed of roughly 150 students in the middle school (grades 6-8) and 300 students in the high school (9-12). Approximately 60 students and 18 teachers live on campus full-time. The average class size is 16.

Aerial View of Athenian School


Dyke Brown conceived of the idea of a mission-driven boarding school during his tenure as Vice President of the Ford Foundation, influenced by his Foundation work in youth development and the prevention of juvenile delinquency, and by his own children's educational experiences.[1]

Athenian is a founding member of Round Square, an international organization of schools whose philosophy is influenced[2] by the German educator Kurt Hahn.[3]

In 1962, Brown left the Ford Foundation to begin to raise money for the school he had in mind. Inspired by the Oxford system of individual colleges sharing common resources, his original plan was a series of four campuses sharing a library, science classrooms, athletic facilities, a performing-arts complex, and other facilities. He found 80+ acres of land in what was then rural Contra Costa county, a portion of what was then the Blackhawk Ranch, bordering on Mount Diablo State Park.

Construction began in 1963, and the founding head, W. Robert Usellis, began recruiting the pioneer classes in the fall of 1964. Brown's vision was startling at the time: he planned for both integration and coeducation. In the early 1960s, very few private schools were recruiting students of color. The value of integration for private schools was seen by a very few visionaries, including the founders of A Better Chance.[4] The norm for boarding schools at the time was single-sex; a coeducational boarding program was unusual. In September 1965, the school opened with approximately sixty students, in ninth and tenth grades. In 1968, the founding class graduated, with a full enrollment of about 120 students, of whom only about six were day students[citation needed].

In the 1970s, Athenian weathered local, national, and international changes. Locally, the surrounding area was transformed from cattle ranches to upscale developments. Athenian's neighbor, Blackhawk Ranch, was sold to land developer Ken Behring, and by 1979 2,500 upscale homes were built. The population boom in the area meant that there was an increased demand for day student places at the school.

Nationally, at least two forces were at work. First, the stagflation of the 1970s meant that parents had less discretionary income, thus weakening the pool of prospective boarding students. Second, other demographic changes, such as the increase in divorce, affected the pool of prospective boarding students.

In 1979, there was sufficient interest in the surrounding community for Athenian to open a day-school only middle school, serving students in grades 6-8. The majority of the Middle School students continued on to finish high school at Athenian.


Aerial View of Athenian School Pool Area

Athenian is one of ten schools in the Bay Counties League - East. The school colors are terra cotta and earth; the sports teams wear orange and black. The athletics program has steadily improved over the past few years. Athenian has made the North Coast Section in Men's Soccer for five straight years. The Women's Basketball Team made it to NCS in 2005, the Men's Basketball Team made NCS in 2006, for the first time in eight years, and the Men's Baseball Team made it to the 2006 NCS Championship, finishing runner-up. Athenian's Golf Team has won the league title for four consecutive years, and seven of the last eight. Led by coach Dani Oswood, the Women's Basketball Team became league champions on February 8, 2008, a first for Athenian women's basketball. The Varsity Sailing Team has raced in the Gold Pacific Coast Championships in both 2013 and 2014, and is one of the highest ranked Northern California teams in the Pacific Coast Inter-Scholastic Sailing Association. A handful of swimmers, wrestlers, and track/cross-country runners will also qualify for the North Coast Section in a given year. Flag football is also offered at the Athenian school and is purposed for middle school to get a start in athletics. The full list of sports offered includes wrestling, soccer, volleyball, flag football, ultimate frisbee, tennis, dance, golf, swimming, track & field, cross country, sailing, basketball, baseball, badminton; and a variety of other non-team athletics, including hiking, fencing, yoga, outdoor adventure, and weight training.

Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE)[edit]

While Athenian's founder, Dyke Brown, was influenced by Kurt Hahn, a wilderness expedition was not originally required in the curriculum. In the summer of 1968, two female members of the class of 1969 participated in the only program available for girls in the Boundary Waters Park. Upon their return to school, they impressed upon Brown and other school leaders the importance of having such an experience part of the Athenian experience.

Originally, Athenian students went on courses provided by the Sierra arm of Outward Bound. After several years, the school devised its own program and hired staff, and made participation in AWE a graduation requirement. Now, Athenian students in their junior year spend three and a half weeks hiking in either the Sierra Nevada (during the summer) or Death Valley (during the spring).


Student activity clubs include: Asian Club, Democrats Club, Feminist Club, Outdoor Adventure Club, Meditation Club, Debate, Interweave (Gay-Straight Alliance), Jew Crew, Latino Club, Black Student Union, Vegetarian Club, Model UN Club, Christian Club, Interfaith Dialogue Club, and Mixed Race Club.[5]


The Athenian Robotics Collective (ARC) competes regularly in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Over the past few years they have had much success under the tutelage of Eugene Mizusawa, Megan Leich, and Brad Niven, as well as a dedicated group of adult mentors. Athenian has performed very well in its regional competition, competing against schools with many times its own population and resources. The robotics team has placed in the regional competition the last three years, first qualifying for the national tournament in 2004. In 2006, the team placed first in the region and again attended the national tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 28, 2007, ARC participated in outreach by demonstrating the capabilities of one of their robots (Chet V) to students at Pleasant Hill Elementary School, as part of their science night. In 2007, ARC and their robot, Chet VI, took second place at the Silicon Valley Regional and the Davis Sacramento Regional. In addition, the team won the General Motors Industrial Design Award for the second year running. In 2008, Athenian was once again the recipient of the GM Industrial Design Award at the Davis Sacramento Regional.

Notable alumni[edit]

  • Jackie Thomas (1982) - Nike executive, former Athenian School Trustee
  • John McKenzie (Sportsman) (2009) - Australian Football League Sportsman
  • Quyen Nguyen (2014) - Distinguished Class A Record Holder (Vietnam)

Heads of School[edit]

  • 1966-1968 W. Robert Usellis
  • 1969-1970 John Streetz
  • 1970-1977 David Murray
  • 1978-1987 Steven Davenport
  • 1987-1992 Sam Eliot
  • 1992-2009 Eleanor Dase
  • 2009–present Eric Niles[6]


  1. ^ The history section is adapted from Athenian: An Oral History
  2. ^ Archived September 20, 2006 at the Wayback Machine The beginnings of the Round Square Conference
  3. ^
  4. ^ Archived April 5, 2007 at the Wayback Machine Mission and History of A Better Chance
  5. ^ Equity and Inclusion: Student Activities
  6. ^ The Athenian School Names New Head

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°50′07″N 121°56′59″W / 37.8354°N 121.9498°W / 37.8354; -121.9498