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At a time when many Sonoma County school districts are losing students and shuttering campuses, the Roseland School District this year opened not one but two new schools.

Roseland Creek Elementary School, a gleaming $28 million campus with emerald ball fields and two-story buildings, opened in August on Burbank Avenue. It marked the first time in nearly a decade that a new school was built in Santa Rosa.

Across town, 56 seventh-graders walked through the doors of Roseland Collegiate Prep, a new school on the former Ursuline High School campus that district officials say eventually will serve 300 seventh- through 12th-grade students enrolled in college-preparatory classes.

The rapid growth — Roseland has more than doubled its enrollment in less than 20 years, and with its two new schools now has six — is coupled with the district's emerging identity as an academic haven for its 2,300 students, the vast majority of whom are poor and Latino.

Access to a rigorous, college-prep curriculum should be available to all students, argues Gail Ahlas, Roseland's high-profile superintendent. "Middle- and upper-class families automatically have that choice, and I think it's important that all of our families have that choice for quality public schools," she said.

Roseland stands in stark contrast to many of the region's districts as it gains students and rapidly expands its programs and geographic footprint.

Roseland was once just one of eight elementary districts feeding into Santa Rosa City Schools' middle and high school system. Today it is a preschool-through-high school program that keeps students within its system while touting the continuity among schools.

"They have created a niche within their community," said Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

It's a formula that has grown increasingly popular in an era when parents and students are given the freedom to choose where their students go to school.

The opening of Roseland Creek Elementary School for 400 students marked the first time in more than five decades that the district was able to ease the enrollment pressure on its two other elementary schools.

"We are full to the brim," said school board president Janice Siebert. "We need to keep those schools, we want to modernize them and keep them repaired."

<b>Prepare, or it's your shoe</b>

On the day the $28 million Roseland Creek opened, its sixth-grade teacher, Alex Piazza, wanted to teach his students a little something about being prepared on their first day of school.

Forget to bring your pencil to class? No problem, a student can borrow one — but it will cost them. It will cost them their shoe, to be exact.

"If you need one, come and grab it, but put your shoe in the PE box," he said.

In Piazza's room, as is the case throughout the Roseland School District, preparation is a key principle: Prepare for middle and high school, prepare for high school graduation, prepare for college.

Portions of the new campus remain unfinished — the library is not ready for students — but teachers and students raved about the soaring, glassed-in breezeway windows, teal blue hallways and bare walls awaiting personalized touches.

"This space for kindergarten, we call it the penthouse," said kindergarten teacher Meghan Kauffman.

As is the the case at Roseland University Prep and Roseland Collegiate Prep, college pennants and posters are affixed throughout the campus. Piazza gives spirit points to students who wear Roseland Creek bear cubs gear or togs from UC Berkeley.

While the opening of Roseland Creek was a nod to the growing enrollment, the establishment of Collegiate Prep across town points to the district's increasing popularity and expanding reach beyond its traditional neighborhood borders.

It's a formula that resonates with parents, Herrington said. "They are holding to a very strict academic program," he said. "Gail is holding those students very accountable."

Ahlas has been superintendent of the district since 2003, and principal at Sheppard Elementary for nine years before that. She has been a driving force in growing the district and rallying community leaders to support the program.

"The business community gets it," Ahlas said. "They want more. High school graduation is just not going to make it anymore."

The list of financial supporters on the school's website is a who's who of local civic and business leaders, including City Council members and judges.

<b>Growing district</b>

For decades, the Roseland School District consisted of two elementary schools: Roseland and Sheppard.

In 2001, the district created a charter middle school: Roseland Accelerated Middle School. The school now has 300 students and a waiting list of 33 students and pulls in about 90 percent of the district's 200 sixth-graders, who otherwise would matriculate to Cook Middle School in the Santa Rosa City Schools district.

In 2004, the Roseland district went further, with the creation of a charter high school: Roseland University Prep, a campus housed in a converted warehouse where students who achieve a target academic record are guaranteed admission to Sonoma State University.

University Prep, with 430 ninth- through 12th-graders, currently has a 22-student waiting list. High school students from Roseland had traditionally headed to Elsie Allen High School.

"This is a competitive environment," Herrington said of the struggle to lure students, and the state funding that comes with them. "I think that people would all want to have the best students they could have. More power to those who create those type of programs."

<b>National accolades</b>

Roseland has the highest percentage of Latino students and students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in Sonoma County, 91 percent in both categories. About 63 percent of the district's students are considered English-language learners, compared with 20 percent countywide. Of the 16,500 students in Santa Rosa City Schools, 25 percent are English-language learners, 46 percent are Latino and 47 percent are considered poor.

"This school district serves a significant portion of our low-income community, and yet you are seeing significant success," said Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who attended Roseland Elementary School.

Roseland District's Academic Performance Index is 790 out of a possible 1,000, compared with Santa Rosa City Schools' 779. The state goal is 800.

The crown jewel of the district, Roseland University Prep, requires that students pass the course work necessary to apply to California State University and University of California campuses to earn their high school diploma. Sonoma Valley High School has since followed suit.

In May, the school was named the seventh best high school in California and 40th best in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.

"You don't have a lot of the white flight, and flight that would occur from similar areas," said Carlos Ayala, interim dean of the Sonoma State University school of education and a Roseland charter board member. "Kids, when they come into kindergarten, they know they want to go to RUP. That is very important. It sends them off to college and prepares them well."

However, the innovative charter school has struggled.

Despite the school's college-prep goal, its juniors have scored significantly lower on college readiness assessments than their peers across the county. The district in 2009 formed a task force to tweak the curriculum from kindergarten forward to help students not just reach college, but to get through college.

Still, the program in Roseland is becoming increasingly popular, and not just with families that live within district boundaries.

When the Collegiate Prep charter campus opened last month north of Santa Rosa near Wikiup, just half of the inaugural class was from Roseland. And the move across town likely will broaden Roseland's appeal, Herrington said.

"It might become more diverse at Ursuline because of its location," he said. "Gail and I believe that is going to happen. They are getting some diversity outside of their area."

<b>3-year lease with Ursuline</b>

Flora Hurtado pulled her daughter from the popular Cali Calmecac Language Academy in Windsor Unified School District, where she is a teacher, to enroll her at Roseland Collegiate Prep.

"I was really attracted, and so was my daughter, to the small classes and the development of the program that will eventually be a high school," she said. "The kids are required to do community service; that part really attracted me. Not that other high schools don't require it, but the focus is on not just the school, but the community."

Hurtado also mentioned the "high expectation of the kids."

After the emotional closure of 130-year-old Ursuline High School, an agreement was reached between the Catholic sisters who own the property and the Roseland District to lease a portion of the campus. Cardinal Newman High School continues to rent a portion of the property from the sisters.

Roseland has a three-year lease with a base annual rent of $99,000, an amount that will increase yearly with the consumer price index but no less than 2 percent a year, said Rosie Greco, Roseland's business manager.

Buildings not covered in the lease, including the gymnasium, can be rented for an additional fee, she said. The deal includes much of the classroom furnishings, but not utilities.

For Roseland University Prep on Sebastopol Road, the district leases the warehouse and grounds from the Benny and Rosemary Friedman Family Trust for $214,000 a year. That rate currently is discounted by $91,000 over two years to help the district weather state budget cuts, Greco said.

To accommodate the school's growth, the district began renting a restaurant supply store that serves as a teachers' lounge and meeting room for $2,175 a month, and four additional structures used for classrooms for $3,200 a month.

<b>Appeal to voters</b>

In November the district, for the first time in its long history, will ask voters to support a $7 million general obligation bond that school board members say will help modernize and upgrade stressed facilities.

At the same time, the district has $1.3 million in state-approved funds to begin preliminary work on a new campus for Roseland University Prep. The state also has earmarked $7 million for construction of the new campus on the same West Avenue property that currently houses Sheppard Elementary School and Roseland Accelerated Middle School, but that money remains on the state's "approved but unfunded" list.

If those funds are released, the district will take out a long-term loan for matching funds to build the new campus for the charter high school.

The district is growing because Roseland is responding to what parents and students have asked for, Ahlas said.

"We are engaged with the community," she said. "Parents are important partners in all of this. We have kept an ear to the ground: What do they need and what do they want? They are the consumer."

Choice has been a key ingredient in Roseland's growth, but so has continuity and the feeling that all Roseland schools are linked, Ayala said.

"RUP students go talk to kids at RAMS and RAMS kids go to Roseland," he said. "They promote each other and promote the sense of community and the community rallies around that."

"Word has definitely gotten out," said Kauffman, the kindergarten teacher. "It's an area that continues to grow, but I really do think that this district is doing amazing things."

Piazza said Roseland's growth and success is a bright spot amid budgetary gloom.

"Roseland is making at name for itself in terms of teaching and overall testing," he said, "at a time when tests are running everything and the state budgets are ruining everything."

(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.)