In a one-room school on a forested mountain ridge 3 miles east of Albion, a tiny Mendocino coast hamlet with a grocery store, post office and hardware store arrayed along a street that parallels Highway 1, six children practice being otters for the end-of-year school play.
The children are cheerful, encouraged by teacher Suzanne Jennings. But their rural K-3 school is in danger of closing, threatened by a dwindling student population. It’s expected to have just three to five students in the next school year.
Albion residents aren’t giving it up without a fight. The area is home to a loosely knit group dubbed the Albion Nation, many of whom arrived on the coast during the 1960s counter-culture back-to-the-land movement and are well known for their activism, particularly against logging operations. More recently, they’ve been vying to save a beloved wooden bridge across the Albion River, scheduled by Caltrans for replacement.
Members of the group successfully lobbied in the 1990s to re-establish a public school in Albion after more than three decades without one and now are reuniting against its planned closure. Last week, they won a temporary reprieve from the Mendocino Unified School Board, which voted 3-2 to keep the school open next year.
“It was totally amazing,” said Annemarie Weibel, who was involved in the initial effort to build the 5,400- square-foot school, set on 8 wooded acres and featuring solar panels and natural lighting.
But the battle isn’t over. Since the vote, the school board has received a flurry of 15 emails and letters urging the school be closed, both for financial and educational reasons, said Mendocino Unified School District Superintendent Jason Morse, who proposed that the school be suspended next year with the possibility of reopening the following year if the number of students increased.
The school’s population is expected to rise within a few years as the youngest of the community’s children reach kindergarten age. School supporters also have been lobbying parents who send their children farther afield to return to the local school. Currently, five kindergarten students from Albion are headed for the elementary school in Mendocino, Morse said.
Some parents of children at the district’s other schools say the money to keep open the Albion facility — about $150,000 in salaries and benefits for one teacher and one teacher’s aide annually — would be better spent on a larger number of students. They also question whether having so few students is good for learning, Morse said.
The district consists of eight schools that serve an estimated 520 students. Its total budget is $8.7 million.
There were fewer than 200 people in Albion in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Morse said there are fewer children of K-3 age than there once were, but also more parents want their kids to attend schools in Mendocino, where they will be in a larger social setting. And, younger kids often are transferred by parents to Mendocino campuses because older kids are already in those schools and consolidating makes the families’ lives simpler.
Albion’s dilemma has been played out countless times across the nation, leading over time to the steady demise of one-room schools, so-called not necessarily because the building consists of only one room but because the students in various grades are all taught together by one teacher. Albion’s school, originally designed for 60 K-8 students, has several small rooms in addition to one large main room with an open kitchen where children can help prepare meals. A century ago, there were more than 100,000 one-room schools, but the number dwindled to 335 nationwide by 2006, according to “The last of the one-room schoolhouses,” an article by education writer Sherry Posnick-Goodwin published on the California Teachers Association website. California Department of Education officials said the department doesn’t keep statistics on the schools.