Santa Rosa’s Anova Center for Education was destroyed in the Tubbs Fire. 6 years later, it still has not been rebuilt

Nearly 150 students are still attending classes in plywood portables at Anova Center for Education in northeast Santa Rosa.|

Sixteen-year-old Aiden Krawchuk points to the last portable classroom in a row of eight at the Anova Center for Education in northeast Santa Rosa.

“Imagine you're going from one classroom to another. It’s almost 100 degrees outside,” he says. “Or, you have to go to the restroom and you’re in room six all the way down there, but here’s the catch ― it’s raining. So you have to carry an umbrella all the way over.”

The portables were erected after the 2017 Tubbs Fire destroyed much of the school. They were only supposed to be temporary, but it’s been nearly six years and they still house Anova’s entire K-8 program.

And while four other schools that were destroyed by the blaze have been rebuilt, Anova remains largely as it was in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

Anova serves high-functioning autistic children and young adults in Sonoma and Marin counties, with some students busing over two hours just to access the school’s resources.

Limited access to bathrooms is not the only problem Aiden and 147 other K-12 students at the nonprofit school face while trying to learn out of portable classrooms in a parking lot, just across from where their school once stood.

“What we’re doing right now is we’re living in a trailer.” Anova CEO Andrew Bailey

For autistic students, rain, excessive heat and other sensory inputs can become disruptions that can interfere with learning. Even the vibration of the wooden floors can be disruptive.

“What we’re doing right now is we’re living in a trailer,” said Anova CEO Andrew Bailey. “Like your house burns down, you set up a trailer in your lot to live there for a year or two to rebuild, but five years later you’re still living in your trailer. That’s where we are.”

The insurance payout from the fire was far less than what was needed to build a new facility that is up to modern building codes. The school has tried to set aside money and has purchased land for a new building, but its fundraising efforts have lagged.

Before the fire, the school was housed in a 1970s-era two-story building on the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts campus. Grades K-6 occupied the bottom floor, while middle schoolers, high schoolers and young adults studied at the top.

Aiden and Valentina Irving, 17, sat next to each other on a shaded picnic bench outside of the row of portables recently and cast downward gazes as they recalled the fire. Except for three classrooms, everything in their school’s building was lost.

The pair had just graduated to the second story. The fire came two months into their seventh-grade year — the first year where they got to decorate their own lockers.

“I even put a little disco ball (in the locker),” Valentina said. “That was kinda sick, but it got burned in the fire.”

After the fire, authorities erected the portables in the Burbank Center parking lot. The portables are meant to be easy to assemble and tear down, making them a good option for schools in crisis.

But because they’re often made of plywood, lightly insulated and on pier-and-beam foundations, the thin walls allow noise and other distractions that are particularly problematic for autistic students.

The problem with portables

“Parking lots are for cars, not children,” Bailey said, while standing in the Anova main office — also a portable. Joining him to discuss the issues with a Press Democrat reporter were Aiden, Valentina and their respective parents, Elise Krawchuk and Derek Irving, along with several administrators and teacher Tabitha Lazanich.

“We have kids here with sensory needs, and when you walk across the (portable), the whole floor vibrates.” teacher Tabitha Lazanich

Lazanich only taught for a year in the old building before the Tubbs Fire. She remembers the disarray that followed, and the lengths that she and other teachers went to support their students.

“In this environment, routine and structure is super, super important. What we tried to do is take our typical schedule and mimic it as best as possible and then go through every day and say ‘This is different because …’ or ‘You’re on a different bus because …’ and constantly giving them time to process,” Lazanich said. “The fire experience was so traumatizing for them.”

When the students transitioned back to the Burbank Center campus, many of the teachers had to pull from their own resources to help teach them.

Lazanich remembers several teachers sharing a single whiteboard.

While most of the portable classrooms and teachers are now fully equipped, “it’s just not enough,” Lazanich said.

“We have kids here with sensory needs, and when you walk across the (portable), the whole floor vibrates,” she said. “If somebody gets up or moves in their chair, the projector system moves and the whole class is disrupted.

“Our overall goal is to teach and give the students the support in order to be able to function outside of this specialized setting,” Lazanich said. “One of the challenges in this environment is that they’re constantly needing to use their strategies just to be in the room, instead of using their strategies to explore outside of the room.”

Struggles with rebuilding

The fire destroyed not only the Anova facilities, but also Burbank’s 400-seat community theater, a shared music room and an outdoor pavilion.

In the weeks after the fire, Burbank Center CEO Rick Nowlin worked with their insurance company to settle on a rebuild price, but Nowlin said the company drastically underestimated the cost of a brand-new building.

“Our building was built in the mid-1970s, so to rebuild to 21st-century code would require us rebuilding differently from how it was built,” Nowlin said. “They were looking at it from how it was built, we were looking at how it would have to be built.”

The old building had no elevator, no sprinklers, and not enough fire prevention infrastructure.

At the time of the fire, Anova was only two years into a 10-year lease with the Burbank Center, meaning Bailey would also have to work with Nowlin to bring students a semblance of the environment they had before.

While Nowlin and other Burbank officials figured out what contingency plan would come next, Anova students were separated by grades, and sent to three different locations across Santa Rosa to continue learning from October 2017 to January 2018.

After insurance negotiations proved unfruitful, the Burbank Center decided to cut its losses.

“We ourselves are a nonprofit organization,” Nowlin said. “We didn’t have the resources to rebuild.”

So, Anova renegotiated its lease, agreeing to rent a portion of the parking lot, purchase the portables and wait until there was enough money to move to a new location.

Anova high school students and young adults in the school’s transition program were also allowed to use three classrooms at the Burbank Center that weren’t severely damaged by the fire.

A lack of funds

Without a foundation of its own to build on, Anova had to start from scratch. Bailey hired a team of architects, and gathered input from Anova faculty, teachers and students.

In the summer of 2019, as plans were in the works, Anova was able to acquire three acres from the Santa Rosa Airport Business Center, which offered the land for $2.5 million under its asking price. What would have cost Anova $4.5 million, only cost it $2 million.

An illustration of a thermometer displaying the $9.6 million raised by Anova as of July 31, 2023. Anova administration estimate it will cost $26.7 million for the entire project. (Courtesy of Anova Center for Education)
An illustration of a thermometer displaying the $9.6 million raised by Anova as of July 31, 2023. Anova administration estimate it will cost $26.7 million for the entire project. (Courtesy of Anova Center for Education)

The new school — which will include two 20,000 square-foot classroom buildings, outdoor pavilions, a garden, multisport courts, and more — is expected to cost $26.7 million; Anova has raised only $10 million.

“I’m trying to get the state and the local donors and anyone who will care and listen to fill in this crack (in funding).” Anova CEO Andrew Bailey

While community support rushed toward Anova at the beginning, it has since tapered off.

“We spent several million dollars already, and what we have to show for that is a beautiful piece of land — it’s zoned for school — all the hard stuff is done. We could go over there today and start digging, legally,” Bailey said. “That’s how close we are to doing this.”

How Anova’s future building will support autistic students

— Muted tones on the walls throughout the buildings

— Light fixtures that reflect light upward, for students who are sensitive to direct and harsh lighting

— Nontraditional spacious classrooms with a variety of seating options

— Small sensory hubs for students to isolate, if needed

— Wide, open hallways

— Textured surfaces for sensory stimulation

To make a donation to Anova, visit the school’s website:

All of the money raised is from community donations. Because of contract provisions in Anova’s initial lease with the Burbank Center, it is ineligible for settlement money from PG&E, whose faulty equipment ignited the Tubbs Fire.

The portables and the space within the parking lot costs more than $500,000 a year, Bailey said, leaving the school with little to no funds to put into the new school.

“I’m trying to get the state and the local donors and anyone who will care and listen to fill in this crack (in funding),” Bailey said. “And it’s only going to need to be done once for this building, just to get this facility put up.”

Once the school is built, Bailey anticipates an increase of 40 to 50 students, allowing Anova to serve a higher need in the community while generating enough revenue from district payments to keep the school going without any outside support.

Funding from the various districts Anova serves allows it to run independently without a cost burden on families.

“We’re able to manage and create programs that really change kids' lives with the money that we get from the districts,” Bailey said. “What we’re not able to do is get the facility that we need to do it in. That’s where the problem is.”

“We always have kids waiting to come,” said Anova Office Manager RuthAnn Chandler. “This school definitely limits our capacity. Every single classroom is filled.”

Once all of the funds are secured, Bailey anticipates the school’s doors opening in less than a year.

Support Anova offers, and it’s future needs

Elise Krawchuk, Aiden’s mom, was hoping he’d get to spend his senior year at a new Anova campus.

“But, it’s been six years, and he won’t,” Elise said. “Our school is still sitting here.”

“They’re just as deserving as any other kids in this community to have a real classroom setting, a real structure. They deserve that.” Anova mom Elise Krawchuk

Aiden has been a student at Anova since kindergarten. Elise feels Anova has become a second family to her son, and the other families have become a support system for her own.

“They’re just as deserving as any other kids in this community to have a real classroom setting, a real structure. They deserve that,” Elise said.

“And we live in Sonoma County,” she said, before Valentina’s father, Derek Irving, jumped in: “There’s money here.”

Bailey is hoping that now, business owners, state officials and other Sonoma County residents with deep pockets can help Anova get the rest of the funding.

After almost six years since the Tubbs Fire, Bailey, Lazanich, Krawchuk and Irving all say that it’s clear the students feel forgotten.

“They see that the other schools are being rebuilt, and (they think) ‘They must not like us, so that’s why they’re not helping us,’” Lazanich said. “We’re still living with the effects of the fire every day. Students — and staff too — aren’t really able to move on.”

“We are just completely left out,” Aiden said. “All those other schools were rebuilt. What about us? What about people who are autistic?”

About Report for America

Adriana Gutierrez covers education and child welfare for The Press Democrat and is Report for America corps member. The national service program was founded to help staff local newsrooms in need of more reporters covering their community. The Press Democrat is one of only approximately 60 newsrooms nationwide chosen to host reporters in 2023. The Report for America program is an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Report For America corps member Adriana Gutierrez covers education and child welfare issues for The Press Democrat. Reach her at

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.