With traffic halted at the corner of Mark West Springs and Ursuline roads late Friday morning, a procession of police and firetrucks with sirens blaring led school buses full of John B. Riebli Elementary students back to familiar surroundings for the first time in more than two months.
At their destination in Larkfield, parents and staff at the Mark West Union School District school filled the woodchip-lined parking lot, even spilling out onto the sidewalks at the crosswalk to welcome their children back. Not since the destructive Tubbs fire, which demolished nearby homes but stopped at the edges of the small K-6 campus, had many students visited.
Their return, both jubilant and poignant, was marked with homemade signs bearing messages that read, “Back where we belong” and “Can’t keep Riebli down!”
“The campus was basically an oasis in the wake of devastation,” said Ron Calloway, the district superintendent. “When I came in on the sheriff’s ride while the fires were still going and saw, I knew in my mind it was going to take a while to get back on campus.”
But a day before the holiday break, administrators offered a sneak peek for its K-2 students, who had been relocated to Mark West Elementary, and those in grades 3-6, who’d been shifted to San Miguel Elementary.
At long last, as the buses parked just after noon, kids raced out the doors wearing oversized backpacks and ear-to-ear smiles, ready to reconnect with teachers and old friends — just as soon as they could get past hordes of parents cheering their arrival with hugs and kisses.
“They cried when they found out that they couldn’t be at the same schools and be together. It just broke their hearts,” said Lori Sarver, who along with husband Tim and boys Nicholas, 8, and Nathan, 11, lost their Coffey Park home. “So the fact that they were able to come back to the same school … it’s important for us to try and get back to some form of normalcy, and this is going to be a big step in that.
“What a great Christmas present for them to give us to bring us back,” she added.
While the adjacent K-12 charter school Redwood Adventist Academy wasn’t spared, Riebli somehow avoided the flames. But 216 students served by the Mark West district, from 192 families, lost homes, along with 16 district staff, according to Calloway.
On Friday, kids — many of them sporting black #RiebliStrong T-shirts and shiny party hats as part of the celebration — were undeterred by the noisy, heavy backhoes working away around the school’s boundary. They quickly dropped off their bags and hit the playground to swing from the monkey bars, and run the grass field for games of tag and duck-duck-goose.
“I was really excited, and everybody yelling and cheering us on felt really good,” said Becky Green, 12, a 6th grader whose 7-year-old brother, Will Graves, is a Riebli 2nd grader. “I’m just kind of trying to get it all in and out of my system, just to experience as much as I can before we get to go back out to break.”
At a small assembly held under an outdoor gazebo, Principal Patty Dineen officially welcomed back the children, asking those happy to be on campus to raise their hands in the air. Arms shot to the sky, and the bulk of Riebli’s 460 students in attendance responded with a collective roar.