Resurgence afoot at El Molino High?

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Over the past decade, El Molino High School administrators watched the school’s enrollment steadily decline to about half its former size.

So this fall, when enrollment climbed 23 students above what it was last year, they saw cause to celebrate.

To them, the small increase marks the reversal of a decade-long trend. It’s also a sign that recent efforts to expand the Forestville high school’s offerings and increase its visibility in the community are paying off.

“It’s pretty darn exciting,” said Keller McDonald. He is superintendent of the West Sonoma County Union High School District, which also includes Analy in Sebastopol and Laguna continuation school. “We’re not seeing a huge influx of new students yet, but as far as the energy level and commitment, it’s great.”

It’s not just about enrollment, he said, it’s about a resurgence at El Molino.

Officials this year increased the school’s course offerings, turning a popular accelerated social science course into a ninth grade advanced placement human geography class. There’s also an additional Project Make offering, a farm-to-table class co-taught by the school’s agriculture and culinary teachers, and a digital marketing course.

The school plans to break ground on an extensive renovation of its football stadium next summer and is drafting plans for a $7 million performing arts center. Both projects will be funded through a 2010 school bond.

And the district has hired a part-time community outreach coordinator to get out the word about what El Molino has to offer.

Officials initiated many of these efforts in response to a districtwide decline in enrollment over the past decade from 2,654 students in the fall of 2004 to 2,108 last fall. They attributed the decline mainly to rising home prices and a subsequent drop in the number of young families living in western Sonoma County. Bucking the district trend, Analy High School managed to maintain its student population over the years, mainly by attracting new students from nearby school districts with a promise of strong academics and diverse program offerings. But El Molino, smaller and farther away from other population centers, saw its enrollment drop from 1,104 in the fall of 2004 to 585 last fall.

That was exacerbated several years ago by El Molino being named a Program Improvement school for failing to meet academic goals, mainly test-score requirements, under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Students are allowed to transfer away from Program Improvement schools, and many chose to go to Analy.

Now, El Molino has given up Title 1 funds, meaning it is no longer in Program Improvement and students can’t transfer away from the school on those grounds.

To further address the issue, the district last year tightened up its transfer policy, allowing students to switch between El Molino and Analy only under very limited circumstances.

Under the new rules, only five ninth-grade students in El Molino’s area were approved transfers to Analy this year. That’s down from 66 in the 2012-13 school year, before the policy took effect.

McDonald acknowledged that El Molino’s gains in enrollment are largely due to the new transfer policy. The goal, he said, is to start attracting more students to El Molino from outside the district through increased outreach and offerings.

Principal Matt Dunkle said officials are promoting and expanding El Molino’s existing strengths, including what he describes as “a small-school feel with big-school opportunities.”

That means a place where students are able to participate in multiple sports and clubs, attend smaller classes and get individualized attention from teachers, he said.

That’s exactly what appealed to freshman Dominic Piazza, who is from Santa Rosa and could have gone to Maria Carrillo High School.

“My parents preferred this school because of how small it is,” he said, taking a break from a mapping exercise in his AP Human Geography class. “Here,the community is a lot nicer. You can get a lot more help from teachers.”

Seniors Brent Rivera and Sam Kang both said they’d had a chance to be involved in multiple sports and student clubs, something they didn’t think would have been possible at a larger school.

Ron Wright, president of the El Molino Boosters, moved his family to Forestville from Santa Rosa a few years ago so both children could attend El Molino, drawn by the sports offerings for his son and the small-school environment for his daughter.

He said he’s seen an increased awareness about El Molino this year.

“There’s been a swell in school pride, activities and community involvement,” he said.

El Molino’s growth has come even as the district’s enrollment continued a decline. Analy’s enrollment dropped to 1,326 this fall, down from 1,369 a year ago.

Some parents have voiced concerns about the district focusing so much of its efforts on El Molino, asking whether Analy is getting a fair share of bond funds passed and whether the new transfer policy is causing families to leave the district when they find they can’t transfer to Analy.

While El Molino is receiving a $7 million performing arts center, Analy is slated to get a $2.5 million band room. Both schools are getting new football stadiums at similar prices.

Keller said he hasn’t seen an increase in students leaving the district. He said decisions about how to spend bond money were made based on where the needs were greatest in the district.

While Analy has a performing arts center, El Molino currently uses its cafeteria for gatherings and performances.

McDonald also acknowledged concerns about pouring money into El Molino, saying people have asked whether doing so was a “reasonable long-term investment” given enrollment trends.

Jim Wheaton, a member of the Analy High School Education Foundation, said he didn’t mind that the district was spending funds on El Molino, but he hoped that the district would closely measure its efforts to ensure they are working.

“The district has been doing a good job of balancing the schools’ different needs, but it does require watching,” he said.

McDonald said the district had a choice to cut funding for or even close El Molino or invest and try to grow the school. Based on community input, they chose the second route.

“People in Sonoma County hold neighborhood schools dear to their hearts,” he said. “They want to keep their options open, not reduce them, and they’re willing to pay for that.

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