Founded in 1957 as the Valley School, Dunn School has deep roots of teaching generations of students as it continues to grow and carry on founder Tony Dunn’s vision for independent education in Santa Barbara County.

The Beginning

Anthony B. "Tony" Dunn was an English veteran of the Eighth Army in North Africa. After World War II, he earned a master's degree from Oxford University, married, and emigrated to the United States.

Mr. Dunn moved with his wife Mary to Santa Barbara County, California, where he taught at Midland School and later, Laguna Blanca School. The Dunns, however, dreamed of starting a school of their own. So with pledges from several financial backers, they began to search for land. Their quest ended with an offer from the Valley Farm School in Los Olivos to take over its facilities, provided the Dunns allowed students in the lower grades to finish and graduate.

In 1957, the Dunns formed a founding board for a new school, comprised of Tony Dunn (President), Nancy Luton Sr. (Vice President), Paul Squibb, William Shannon, and Mary Dunn (Secretary). The board re-incorporated the school as The Valley School and built a dorm that summer. In September 1957, The Valley School opened with 49-day students and 7 boarding boys, grades kindergarten through eight. In 1960, the board renamed the school in honor of its founders with the name it bears today.

Tony Dunn’s objective was to establish a residential high school which had roots roots in the example of Eton and the tradition of English private education. By 1964, he had phased out grades K-8, and Mr. Dunn entered the small fraternity of Heads of high schools in what was to become the Condor League.

Mr. Dunn was always looking for young men open to change, innovation and growth. As headmaster, he served many roles: teacher, coach, mentor, and even spiritual leader to a group of young men who flourished. They were to forever (in terms of the school) refer to themselves as "Dunn Men." Nine boys graduated in that first class of 1961.

Most male-only boarding schools of this era presented rather monastic environments dominated by team sports and heavy doses of homework and chores. However, Mr. Dunn did his best to provide for dances and other activities. Students started a radio station, a guitar club, drama clubs and faculty/student relay races. Mr. Dunn also presided over Sunday religious services in the barn. Soccer was the first formal team sport and early players recall digging rocks out of the field and chasing the ball across bare dirt during games. Over the next couple of years, the gymnasium and pool were built and more farmland was purchased and turned into athletic fields.

A Transition Period

The death of Tony Dunn on January 3, 1967 was a profound shock to the young school community. The transition year of 1967-1968 was a difficult one. As Headmaster, teacher, coach, and counselor, Mr. Dunn was the embodiment of Dunn School. Many students and teachers chose to leave after his death, with only half of the class of 1968 returning. Unfortunately, at the time of his death, Mr. Dunn had nearly finalized the purchase of 104 acres of farmland to the west of campus, but the opportunity was lost when he died. The School would have to wait another twenty years to expand the campus. Through aggressive admissions and faculty recruiting, Dunn School slowly regained its footing.

The new Headmaster, Bill Webb, strove to increase enrollment by inviting applications from day girls, reinstating 8th grade and hiring a trained reading tutor, Nancy Roome, who founded what today is known as the Learning Strategies program. A Discipline Committee was also created by Mr. Webb to review violations and a student government with class presidents and a Student Body President replaced the Prefects.

During this time, Dunn constructed the Senior Dorm, and old houses from the area were donated and relocated to the campus for faculty housing. The quality of student life and the community morale, staffing and faculty slowly improved.

Expansion and Growth

In the late 1970s, Dean Ed Simmons saw that enrollment had been skewed toward grades 11-12. So he founded Dunn Middle School in two old houses that were moved from Solvang and fitted to become classrooms. 

In 1982, Steve Loy became Headmaster and initiated the first major fundraising campaign, "Campaign for the Eighties," aimed at improving the facilities and building an endowment. To mark the start of the campaign, an old one-room schoolhouse was moved from Buellton and put opposite the Red Barn from the original Valley School. These two buildings defined the heart of the Dunn School campus. The campaign eventually funded a 400-meter all-weather running track and athletic field facilities. Senior Dorm, the Quad, and Thacher House were refurbished. Mr.  Loy also put the wheels in motion for a residential program for girls. When the Roberts family offered to pay a significant part of the cost of construction of a new dorm, Loy House was built in 1991. To ensure the safety and proper supervision of the girls, two faculty homes were also attached to Loy House.

This era also marks by the last property acquisition for Dunn. In the mid-1980s, the ten acre farm paralleling the Roblar entrance became available when the owner died and his two daughters gave Dunn first chance to buy the land. The farmer's home became a faculty house and two athletic fields were formed from the land.

Building on Excellence

The success of the Campaign for the Eighties, the construction of a new dorm and the resultant boost in enrollment and growing reputation in the community allowed Dunn to set it sights on growth and improving its quality of education.

In the mid-1990s, Dunn launched a new campaign to put the school in the upper echelons of independent schools. This campaign, called "Building on Excellence," financed the construction of a state of the art Fine Arts Complex, giving a much-needed boost to this part of the curriculum. Two modern boys' dormitories were built — Boone House and Knoles. In addition, the school adopted new admissions standards, and the quality of education steadily improved through the end of the century and into the next.

The Recession and Beyond

In the summer of 2008, Mike Beck joined Dunn as Head of School, bringing over a decade of experience in independent residential education and a 20-year career in U.S. Naval leadership. His steady hand was needed as soon as he arrived when the School experienced the impacts of the "Great Recession" in the fall of 2008 and beyond. He led the school through financial uncertainty as enrollments dropped. Through a dogged focus on financial sustainability and increased enrollments, the school emerged from the financial crisis stronger than ever. Under Mr. Beck's leadership, Dunn continues to grow its student body, upgrade the physical plant, increase academic quality, and solidify its financial position.

Mr. Beck also reached back to the wit and wisdom of Mr. Dunn to help frame the educational philosophy of his tenure. He puts emphasis on the school's original and enduring mission: “The Dunn School community educates the whole student to his or her fullest potential in preparation for a life of learning and responsible leadership in society.” From this mission, Mr. Beck articulated five core values that make for a whole-student education. These include: Emotional Wellness, Physical Readiness, Academic Excellence, Social Responsibility, and Moral Courage.

Today, the School is a strong and vibrant as ever, with specific emphases on the core values as outcomes for student learning, experiential education as the predominant pedagogical philosophy, and learning leadership through a variety of experiences both within and beyond the classroom.


I never imagined my child would be so lucky to have so many quality role models. The type of teacher makes all the difference. The time spent with these children may seem short but the impact is forever.

—Parent '15