The faces at Brook Hill Elementary School on Vallejo Street in central Santa Rosa look very little like the faces of kids in its neighborhood.|

The faces at Brook Hill Elementary School on Vallejo Street in central Santa Rosa look very little like the faces of kids in its neighborhood.

Of the 434 kindergarten through sixth-graders enrolled at the school in 2009-10, 17 percent were white. But an analysis of Brook Hill's attendance area, which stretches from Farmers Lane west past the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, shows that 30 percent of children 5 through 9 years old living in the area are white.

In the era of school choice, white students are choosing not to enroll at Brook Hill.

A decade ago, Brook Hill was about 63 percent Latino and 24 percent white. Fifty-nine percent of students were still learning English and 87 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

In the 1999-2000 school year, Brook Hill posted a score of 492 out of a possible 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index -- well below the state goal of 800.

Ten years later, Brook Hill's enrollment was 71 percent Latino and 17 percent white. Sixty-four percent were considered English-language learners and nearly nine out of 10 kids qualified for free or reduced lunches.

Still, the school's API score had jumped from 492 to 760 and compared with other schools with similar demographics, its ranking was an 8 out of 10.

But for parents comparing test scores, the school ranked only 3 out of 10 when compared with all state elementary schools and remained under federal No Child Left Behind sanctions for failing to meet academic standards.

"It does seem to me that people are leaving the schools that have low test scores, and I think they are leaving the schools where there are a higher percentage of English learners," said school board member Laura Gonzalez.

Of Santa Rosa City Schools District's 10 non-charter elementary schools, only Monroe, Steele Lane and Doyle Park have a greater ethnic disparity between entrolled students and children living within the neighborhood. The figures are based on a Press Democrat analysis of attendance area demographics.

"You have schools like Brook Hill and Doyle Park and Monroe that are predominantly Latino," Gonzalez said. "I think people are leaving based on test scores and some, if not all, because they feel if teachers are spending an inordinate amount of time teaching kids to speak English, their child will founder."

But Gonzalez called that shortsighted.

"Parents like that aren't looking at the bigger picture, and I don't think sending their student to a school like Brook Hill is going to result in their children being left behind or forgotten because of the extra needs of children," she said.

Gonzalez suspects the families who are leaving are white and middle class.

"They are mostly solid middle class and they probably, and I'm guessing, the parents have at least some college," she said. "Kids like that, barring any special issue, those kids are likely to do well no matter where they go because of their background."

Mom of three Cristina Gosling lives in Brook Hill's attendance area but instead of driving the half-mile to the Vallejo Street campus, she loads her first-, fourth- and seventh-graders into the car every day and either drives or carpools to Sebastopol.

Calling her decision not to send her kids to Brook Hill "multifaceted," Gosling said she was concerned how her children would fare academically among peers just learning to speak English.

In 2004-05, when Gosling's older daughter would have started at Brook Hill, 44 out of 63 -- 70 percent -- of kindergartners were English-language learners.

That ratio "would mean she would get almost no attention at all," Gosling said.

She worried that the "extras," like art and music and sports, would be sacrificed at a school that has struggled to meet state and federal academic targets.

Under rules spelled out in No Child Left Behind, parents can pull their children out of a school that has fallen into academic sanctions.

For Gosling, the talk in the neighborhood about where families send their kids to school started early and almost always ended with recommendations against enrolling at either Brook Hill or nearby Doyle Park, located just across Matanzas Creek.

"I met parents whose kids went to Doyle Park and I met families who went to Brook Hill and pulled kids out," she said.

Gosling, who eventually enrolled two of her children at the Sebastopol Independent Charter School and the third at Sun Ridge Charter School in Sebastopol, said that she worried about not being able to secure play dates because she doesn't speak Spanish.

She was concerned too about how her children would handle being one of a limited number of white students on campus.

"I read somewhere that being a racial minority is one of the most stressful" situations, she said. "If your child is going to be one, I would avoid it. Kids will pick on someone who is different. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

Santa Rosa School Board President Larry Haenel said families seeking a mix of ethnicities on campus aren't likely to find it in Santa Rosa because of the patterns of flight from certain campuses.

"I think people are looking for diversity. They are not looking to be the sole person of a different ethnicity at a certain school," he said.

"We know the dangers of segregation, so the ideal is to have a diverse school," he said. "How we accomplish that is the $64,000 question."

News researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this story. Staff Writer Kerry Benefield can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.

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