Single-room Union School near Petaluma faces closure over drop in student numbers

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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.

The school’s population has always fluctuated widely. When Rowley’s children, now in their 20s, attended, there were close to 30 students. Six years ago there were 13.

As dairies in the area have closed or consolidated and families have aged, the supply of prospective students has been depleted

“This used to be a hearty dairy community,” said Rowley, who still operates a nearby ranch. “The farmers and the working men had lots of children and it kept the school flourishing. Now a lot of the dairies went out of business and there are no young children, so we rely on children coming from town.”

By virtue of its location, the school is overseen by the Marin County Office of Education. But the school’s proximity to the Petaluma City School District means it accepts Petaluma students on inter-district transfers.

That doesn’t happen as often as is needed, a situation she and the board members are trying to remedy, said Walsh.

“We’re off the grid, so we’re not on people’s lists of schools to consider and that’s where we want to be,” she said.

That’s not to say the white clapboard building with a working bell tower doesn’t attract attention.

“People wonder about the school,” Walsh said, “but not many people think it’s still an operating public school.”

On one wall hang 11 ukuleles, marks of the music curriculum. A local artist comes in twice a week for its art classes. There is a full STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program. Every student has a Chromebook and a laptop, and students from third grade and up have iPads.

“We’re a public school so we offer all the state-funded programs plus the STEM, music and art. And our student-teacher ratio, I don’t know anyone else who has that,” said Walsh, who has a daily teacher’s aide on staff as well.

“I feel confident that there are children out there and parents out there that are looking for a school just like us, and we just need to connect with them,” she said. “I’m trying to keep the stress at bay.”

As part of its campaign, the school created a display about itself that is being shown in the window of the Petaluma Copperfield’s bookstore. And parents are helping with recruiting.

“I’m trying to spread the word,” said Robin Frost of Petaluma, who used an inter-district transfer to send her daughter, now a second grader, to the school. “I don’t think it’s something we want to lose as a community. It’s really served this area and it would be a shame to let that go.”

Frost said she was drawn to the school by the experience of extended family members, the academics, and the social skills she said the campus helps build.

“I think it actually gives them a really good foundation for how to work out things,” she said. “It might be the same group of kids throughout your whole elementary school career, and you’ve got to work things out. You’re all together. It’s like a family.”

One obstacle the school is encountering is that it has no preschool and also does not offer after-school care, unlike many modern campuses. This year’s crisis was precipitated when a family that had two children enrolled in the school withdrew and switched to a Petaluma elementary school that offered those options.

“That’s something we want to look at once we have the ability to exhale,” said Walsh. “The situation we’re in now just doesn’t give us the time to look at the possibilities yet.”

In the meantime, Walsh and the school board has held discussions with the nearby Lincoln school district, also a one-room school house, about consolidation. That would require closing one of the school sites, likely Union, and is therefore being considered a last resort.

“I’d be really sad if it closed,” said Rowley’s 23-year-old daughter, Stephanie. “It was safe. It was out there where no one could hurt you. There was no bullying because everyone knew you and it was so small. And it was like family.”

In the longterm, Walsh acknowledges, the odds might be against the school. But for now, they intend to face them down.

“The reality of small schools is there will be less of them, that’s a likely conclusion,” Walsh said. “But they’re still going and we’re going to fight. We’re small but mighty, and we’re still hoping.”

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay

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