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Santa Rosa’s Hidden Valley Satellite School will not be rebuilt due to declining enrollment

On a recent April evening, a large tent was erected at the Hidden Valley Satellite School site in northeast Santa Rosa, where about 40 people gathered to discuss the future of the small campus that burned down in the 2017 Tubbs fire.

“It’s the first time I had parked up there since the fire, so it felt strange,” said Brad Coscarelli, principal at the affiliated Hidden Valley Elementary. “But it was good.”

The satellite, the only public campus in Sonoma County to be destroyed in the 2017 fires, had 81 students enrolled at the time. They were moved to the main campus and district officials decided last year that the satellite school would not be rebuilt.

They cited declining enrollment at the school and in the district as main factors.

The cost of rebuilding at the site also has been a concern, and this week the district received some welcome news on that front. It was awarded a $1.4 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant toward rebuilding a school at the satellite site and its Alba Lane Farm, an educational site that burned down in the fires and was formerly used by agricultural students at Santa Rosa High School.

“It’s helpful, but it will not nearly cover the cost of the school and farm,” Superintendent Diann Kitamura said.

The district is still negotiating a final settlement from its insurance company on the farm and satellite school. A district spokesperson did not have figures for the cost of damage at the sites.

The satellite campus is owned by Keysight Technology, which rents it to the district for $1 a year. The Santa Rosa company and district are working together to craft a plan for the acreage moving forward.

No formal decisions have been made, but Keysight employees have expressed a strong desire for a childcare facility, and there’s been discussion among school district officials and community members of also starting a possible charter or magnet school that focuses on science, technology, research or reading, arts and mathematics, known as STREAM.

“All options are on the table,” said Jenni Klose, the Santa Rosa school board president.

Coscarelli, district officials, parents, students, former satellite school teachers and Keysight employees attended a community forum on April 3 to share their thoughts on what to do with charred lot. Keysight provided a large tent for shelter from the rain. The discussion included a STREAM-focused program, after-school care or a preschool.

“It was pretty emotional for them, but they still wanted what’s best for that site and those kids,” Kitamura said about the former satellite teachers.

Hidden Valley’s main campus is working this school year toward making the curriculum more STEM-focused.

“We’re really trying as teachers to answer ‘Where are we going from here? How are we going to meet the needs of our community?’” said Victoria Nelson, a kindergarten teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary who’s been with the district for two decades.

The main campus has about 545 students today, Coscarelli said, compared with 602 enrolled between the main and satellite campuses in August 2017. About a quarter of Hidden Valley students lost their homes in the fires, contributing to the decline in headcount.

Nelson recalled her kindergarten students this year lining up chairs in the dramatic play area of her classroom. She thought they were making a train, but they told her, “We’re evacuating.”

“It’s something that is present in a lot of their lives,” Nelson said of the wildfire fallout.

Declining enrollment is happening countywide and districtwide, in part because of the wildfires but also because of the high cost of living and the decline in children per household.

Not including charter schools, which have increased enrollment for specialized programs, the enrollment at Santa Rosa City Schools is 14,569 this school year. By the 2020-21 school year, the district projects enrollment to decline by over 500 students.

“Enrollment is still significantly down and students at Hidden Valley satellite were easily absorbed at the main campus,” Klose said. “At this time, it doesn’t appear we need another elementary school site.”

Dan Condron, a former employee of Hewlett-Packard, which later became Keysight Technologies, spent three years to help open the satellite campus in 1993.

The school addressed overcrowding in the district at the time while providing a local campus that took in children of Hewlett-Packard employees and provided after school childcare.

“I certainly was very supportive of the original school and I would be very happy to see a new school built,” said Condron, who now volunteers as a liaison between the school district and Keysight as a plan for the site is forming. “There’s a lot of interest here, but there’s no firm decision.”

Alicia Benson, global senior director of workplace solutions at Keysight Technology, said childcare is one way the company attracts and retains talent. The before- and after-school childcare offered at the satellite school was critical for employees, she said.

“From a Keysight perspective, our No. 1 priority is to obtain daycare for our employees,” Benson said.

Tentative construction plans for childcare will be presented to the school board in July. The next community forum for families interested in having input on the future of the site of the former Hidden Valley Satellite School is May 22. The district is taking online comments on the issue at https://srcs.link/srcs-keysight.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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