Single-room Union School near Petaluma faces closure over drop in student numbers
A one-room school in the hills south of Petaluma that has endured the transformation of education over the past 120 years is at risk of having to close because it is one student short of the number the state says it needs to remain open.
Union School has just six students these days, and the state says it needs at least seven by the end of January or it must close its doors in June.
The school’s two staff members and the small community that surrounds it are trying feverishly to secure the additional pupil needed to stave off that outcome.
The prospect of closure is devastating those who see the school — just over the Marin County line — as a hub of learning and link between families in this sparsely populated swath of the North Bay’s dairy belt.
“I would be heartbroken,” said Union Joint School District board member Diane Rowley, who graduated from the school in 1975, when the total enrollment was nine pupils. Rowley’s three children attended the K-6 school as well.
Absences due to illness, demographic changes and other regional trends, along with an obscure section of the state education code, have brought the school on Red Hill Road to the brink of closure, a fate that has befallen more than 100 one-room schoolhouses in Sonoma County over the past century.
Nowadays, just three remain, all operating in new buildings in far-flung locations: Kashia School on Skaggs Springs Road near Stewarts Point; Horicon School in Annapolis; and Montgomery School in Cazadero.
In 1916, there were 115 one-room school houses in Sonoma County, according to official reports from the time.
“They were an equalizer, one of the great American equalizers. Everyone had an opportunity,” said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools. “It’s a Jeffersonian concept, where a tract of land would generate enough taxes collectively that everyone could go to school.”
Though it sits just over the county line, Union School, housed in its original wood building dating to 1895, serves the Petaluma area. It is one of three remaining one-room schools in Marin County. Horses graze out back.
Last week, with the school shuttered for the holidays, Cynthia Walsh, the school’s lone teacher and principal of nine years took care of her paperwork in near-silence. The school currently has two second-graders; two third-graders; one fourth- and one fifth-grader.
Between them, the students notched six absences between the start of the school year and the winter holiday. That brought the average daily attendance to 5.89, just below the attendance average of 6 that the state requires for a school to remain open. It’s a situation called lapse, and Union School is in it.
The way out is fairly simple — finding another student to enroll in the next three weeks. But that solution has been hard to come by, according to Walsh, who is also the mother of a fourth-grade student at the school.
“One student by the end of January would bring us into six average daily attendance, and from there, out of lapse zone, so to speak.” Walsh said. “We need one student to offer us more time to come up with more students and look for alternative funding” for the future.