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New beginnings for Cotati-Rohnert Park school district


When Ivy Hawthorne of Rohnert Park dropped her only child, Laila Rose, off at kindergarten Wednesday morning, she had the typical array of first-day-of-school feelings.

"It's exciting; it's nerve-wracking — the preparation and everything," she said. "I'm really excited for her. It's a big start for her."

So, too, was the launch of University Elementary School at La Fiesta Wednesday a big day for the Cotati-Rohnert Park School District. Sonoma County's third largest school district, long besieged by declining enrollment and dramatic budget cuts, opened not one, but two schools Wednesday.

Barely a mile from the Liman Way campus that now will house University Elementary, more than 300 sixth and seventh graders became the inaugural classes in the new Technology Middle School on the former Mountain Shadows Middle School.

Mountain Shadows Middle School was home to about 700 students when the school board voted to shutter it in 2010 under mounting financial and enrollment pressure.

In voting last March to re-open, re-name and re-configure the two campuses, district officials said they hope to reinvigorate the entire district.

"It's incredible that we are here today in this environment," Superintendent Robert Haley said to a crowd of students, parents, teachers and area officials who gathered on Tech Middle School's quad before sending the students to class.

"It's exciting to have new opportunities for kids and parents," school board trustee Jennifer Wiltermood said. "Just giving them choices that they want and need."

Board president Marc Orloff said the two school openings give the community "a sense of hope."

Hawthorne is banking on that idea.

"I hope that we can turn it around and this is one of the reasons that I chose this school," she said of University Elementary. "We are creating this as we go so we can make changes quickly, rapidly, that are based on the results we are seeing based on how well the children are doing."

University Elementary opened Wednesday with 48 students — one kindergarten class and one kindergarten/first grade combination class. Haley and Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Kaufman will serve as administrators.

District officials in 2012 floated the idea of re-opening La Fiesta but could not generate parental support. Not until a partnership was struck with Sonoma State University's School of Education that will place undergraduates pursuing degrees in early childhood studies in classrooms that have a focus on project-based learning, did parents sign on.

"The biggest selling point for me was when I found out there were going to be Spanish speaking classes," said Lily Bitz-Hay, who dropped off her daughter Amira early Wednesday. "I think with any new program there is always a risk of it not working out, which is nerve wracking but we are excited and hopeful that it will work out."

It is high stakes for the district.

For years, the district was assigned a fiscal minder who had "stay and rescind" power over district spending. In March, the district moved from "negative" to "qualified" budget status and shed the fiscal minder. County Office of Education officials looked at the proposals to open the new schools and did not find any issues to prevent the move.

Haley, who has been Superintendent since 2011, said the closures of La Fiesta and Mountain Shadows, as well as Gold Ridge and Richard Crane elementaries dating back to 2002, may have saved money in the short term but eventually pushed families out of the district.

About 800 students who live within district boundaries attend other public schools, according to Haley. That number does not include students attending private and charter schools.

Enrollment in the district has fallen from 8,300 in 2000 to 5,770 last year. Haley said Wednesday that he hopes official enrollment numbers expected in about 10 days will show the district holding even — or near even — with last year.

The new programs are meant not only to draw students from outside of the district's natural boundaries but to convince families who long have been sending their students to other cities and other schools to stay near home.

Of the approximately 330 students who now attend Technology Middle School, 12 are students coming in from other districts, according to Principal Amy Goodwin. Four new Tech Middle School Tigers live in the district's boundaries but prior to this year had been attending school outside of Cotati-Rohnert Park, she said.

Goodwin, who has spent 16 years in the district and was principal of La Fiesta when it closed in 2008, said seeing Tech Middle School open Wednesday was "the culmination of a dream."

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)