Santa Rosa’s Cardinal Newman High School gained significant ground in fire rebuild in 2021

Ask someone at Cardinal Newman High School today to chronicle the past few years on campus and their answers often involve a lot of gesturing to areas of the school once destroyed, now remade.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Linda Norman, president of the college prep Catholic school, pointed toward the foothill of the Mayacamas Mountains just east of the Ursuline Road campus, tracing the path of the Tubbs fire from memory.

“The fire came down through there,” Norman said, sweeping her hand down in the direction of Cardinal Newman’s campus, about half of which was burned in 2017 during the deadly North Bay firestorm. It caused roughly $15 million in damages, including the utter destruction of several school buildings.

Today, the campus skyline includes the roof of the North classroom complex, rebuilt in 2019.

And about 50 feet north of that building, a new structure, the two-story classroom building, rises even higher. The campus’s 512 students have been able to attend classes in that building only since October. Its completion allowed them to move out of 24 portable classrooms that were their temporary home since 2018.

“My portable was right there, and I was looking as the buildings were being built,” said Elsa Binder, a social studies teacher who now occupies a second-story classroom in the new complex. She gestured toward her new window. “And now I get to look out onto beautiful Sonoma County.”

This year, amid continued complications wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cardinal Newman managed to make significant progress in its recovery from the Tubbs fire. The new benchmarks included completion of the classroom complex and breaking ground on a new student life center and library.

Completion of the student center, the last of a $38 million slate of capital projects, is targeted for 2023. But the school also plans to raise an additional $3.2 million to support construction of a new chapel, and is planning to design and fundraise for a new administrative building in the years to come.

In October, Cardinal Newman hosted a ribbon cutting for the new classroom complex, including an assembly with a blessing by Bishop Robert F. Vasa, leader of the Santa Rosa Diocese.

For senior Ricky Waite, getting to attend class in the new buildings “feels like a privilege.”

“When I showed up, my expectations were absolutely exceeded,” he said. “I saw posters of what (the buildings) would look like, but I wasn’t able to completely visualize it.”

In addition to 18 classrooms, the complex also features an art studio and multiple collaboration rooms for students and staff to work together.

Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, which is the designer and master planner for the school’s projects, emphasized elements of fire resilience and sustainability in the design of the complex, said John Dybczak, partner with the firm and principal for the Cardinal Newman project.

They also wanted it to feel more like a college campus than a typical K-12 school.

“Traditionally, in public elementary and high schools, the classroom was kind of the 960-square-foot box with desks,” Dybczak said. “We tried to make the design much more flexible.”

The shape of the building encompasses a central courtyard on three sides, with outdoor study spaces placed throughout the area. Inside the building, movable partitions between some classrooms can easily change the size of the space.

Large windows were installed to optimize natural light, while the pendant light fixtures inside the room automatically adjust their brightness in accordance with the sunlight — saving energy.

Dybczak is the father of two Cardinal Newman graduates, and, as a member of the school’s building and grounds committee, became involved in the rebuild immediately after the fire burned through. He said one of the most rewarding parts of the process was fielding so many offers from community members and graduates to help.

“It was really, really great to see how much support the school has from the community and how many people came and volunteered and offered to help how they could,” he said.

Cardinal Newman, and the two Santa Rosa school campuses that border it to the east and southeast, bore a heavy brunt of the 2017 firestorm, which has had lasting effects for all three schools.

Elsa Binder, a social studies teacher at Cardinal Newman, has for years had her students draw maps showing their routes to school as part of a geography assignment.

On the October night the Tubbs fire erupted, Binder said, she pulled out those maps and pored over them, trying to keep track of which students’ homes were in the path of the advancing flames. She could only wonder at the time whether or not they had safely evacuated.

“I’m just thinking of all the maps that I’ve seen,” Binder said. “It was awful. That was probably the worst.”

Waite, now one of her students, and his family were among many displaced by the Tubbs fire. Much of his parents’ property on Mark West Spring Road was burned, and though their house survived, it was heavily damaged by smoke. They moved out for six months.

At the time, Waite was in eighth grade at St. Rose Catholic School, which borders Cardinal Newman to the southeast. A quarter of that campus was damaged in the fire.

Students at Cardinal Newman, St. Rose and Roseland Collegiate Prep, which sits just east of the other two schools and was also burned, had to relocate to continue their education. (To the southeast, Hidden Valley Satellite Charter School burned to the ground and was not rebuilt.)

The Diocese of Santa Rosa rallied to provide space for its displaced students at parishes across the county during that time.

Waite and his classmates were sent to the St. Rose parish, he said, located on 10th Street in Santa Rosa.

He adjusted quickly to learning in a new environment. But he worried about the future of the school he was headed to next.

“That was definitely worrisome for me because that was where I was going to be spending my next four years,” he said. “But seeing how quickly they responded, I knew it was going to be able to be OK.”

The student life center, where builders broke ground in July, will feature 24,000 square feet of usable space across two stories. The facility will include a new cafeteria and state-of-the-art kitchen, as well as a student lounge with various types of seating, where students can work late into the evening or arrive early, to work or to socialize.

The building will also feature a library, for the first time since the old library burned in 2017, and an “innovation hub,” which will include technology such as 3D printers and robotics equipment.

As the school community moves into a brighter future within its new, upgraded facilities, campus leaders remain committed to ensuring the tragic chapter that led to those improvements is not forgotten.

Some of those reminders of what existed before the fire have survived and are visible — the statue of Jesus Christ on one end of the classroom complex, and a fountain, around which the school plans to create a prayer garden where students can find solitude.

Others are not tangible — but are no less real. It’s the practice of telling stories to the next generation of students and staff to come, Binder said.

“That’s how you create culture,” she said. “These are the things that happened before, these are the lessons we’ve learned, this is what we do.”

“The fires were a huge tragedy for the area, but had it not been for the fires, this would not have been happening,” Dybczak said. “In the long term, the school will be better off from rebuilding.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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