Riebli Elementary students mark return to campus after Santa Rosa fire

Ahead of their holiday break, grade schoolers visited Riebli Elementary School for the first time since the October fires. They resume classes Jan. 8.|

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 from 192 families served by the Mark West district, including 126 Riebli students, lost homes, Calloway said. Sixteen district employees also lost their homes.

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 on 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 sixth-grader whose 7-year-old brother, Will Graves, is a Riebli second-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.

“Since October 6, this is our first time being back together, and it is a beautiful sight,” said Dineen. “You guys look fantastic. We are back, and we are home.”

Riebli Elementary and Schaefer Elementary in the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood were closed until workers cleaned the school grounds and officials could ensure safe air quality as debris cleanup took place around them. Officials for Schaefer, part of the Piner-Olivet Union School District, and Riebli, both said regular air quality measures at the two campuses have shown no signs of toxicity from the cleanup efforts. They suggested the reopening of the campuses represents a move back to normal for students, parents and educators.

“This is going to provide great progress in that direction for their community,” said Piner-Olivet Superintendent Carmen Diaz-French.

Riebli will formally reopen Jan. 8. Classes will resume at Schaefer Jan. 9.

Riebli parents said the outpouring of support Friday morning as the buses arrived once again underscored how valuable this small school community was before the fires, and will be moving forward as the region continues its attempts to recover.

“Everybody coming together has brought everybody closer together, and just for all the parents to be here for the kids, it’s a big deal for them,” said Kristen Gentry, mother of 9-year-old Payton, a third-grader. “Normally we sit around a bench there and chat and our kids come and play after school. We haven’t been able to do that, so this just marks the beginning of getting back to that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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