Sonoma County schools find creative ways to accommodate students displaced by wildfires

First graders in Tara Kellett's class are using the space formerly occupied by counselors at Hidden Valley Elementary school in Santa Rosa on Wednesday. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)


Kids scurried from the monkey bars to the slide, screaming in excitement as they squeezed past classmates. The playground is more crowded these days at Hidden Valley Elementary School, which two weeks ago welcomed nearly seven dozen additional students after the Oct. 8 deadly firestorm destroyed the Hidden Valley Satellite campus up the road.

The main campus turned small instruction and reading spaces into classrooms. Teachers and school officials cleared out mounds of books and materials accumulated over decades and brought in student desks and donated partition panels to create the classroom space.

“We made a classroom where there was no classroom,” said Heidi Facciano, a Hidden Valley Satellite first- and second- grade teacher who set up in one of the reading spaces. “Luckily, I had several friends and neighbors who wanted to help.”

The deadly wildfires forced Santa Rosa-area schools to get creative in making space for schools that burned or have remained closed since the fires.

Mark West Union School District converted two school gyms into classroom spaces for the displaced John B. Riebli Elementary students. While the school remained unscathed, the district split up the 450 students that returned onto its two other schools after the fire decimated the surrounding neighborhoods. It isn’t safe for students to return to Riebli until toxic materials are removed from the charred neighborhoods, Superintendent Ron Calloway said.

So, he said, “we’ve made a lot of shuffling and adjustments.”

More than half the students, grades three to six, moved to San Miguel Elementary, while kindergartners to second-graders went to Mark West Elementary. Three classrooms were set up in each of the school’s gyms using partition walls donated by two local businesses. They also hold classes in space occupied by the after-school child care and Boys and Girls Club outside of regular school hours, Calloway said.

“We’re making it happen,” Calloway said. “It’s really the teachers who have done a magnificent job. They made this home (for) the kids.”

The Piner-Olivet Union School District also planned to split up among its other campuses the students from Schaefer Elementary School, which sits right next to all the devastation in Coffey Park. School officials did not return messages seeking details.

At Hidden Valley Elementary School, Kim McKay’s kindergarten class now occupies a corner of the after-school child care room on the west end of campus. Her students are settling in, despite having to adjust to being at a larger campus.

“As long as they’re together, they’re happy,” she said.

On the south end of campus, school staff turned a counseling room into a first-grade classroom. Colorful butcher paper and alphabet cards covered the once bare walls, while paper hearts with the students’ names decorated a large paper tree near the door. Seventeen students sat on a colorful rug near the white board, wiggling in their spots as teacher Tara Kellet read “Jasper’s Beanstalk.”

“It’s a tight squeeze, but we’re making it work,” Hidden Valley Elementary School principal Jacqui Parker said.

Of the 85 students who attended the now-charred school, 83 followed the six teachers to the main campus down the road, Parker said. They also brought over the office manager and custodian from the satellite campus.

“I’m happy they all stayed together. That was the goal,” Parker said.

However, a parent voiced dismay after learning one of the satellite campus’s after-school child care employees, Debbie Roach, would be transferred to another school.

“It’s heartbreaking. I’m sure it’s going to be traumatic for some of the kids,” said Nancy Lanz, whose Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School sixth-grader attended the after- school program at Hidden Valley Satellite.

Students still are adjusting to changes in Facciano’s class, where crayon-shaped paper cutouts with students’ names hang on a back wall. Nearby on a shelf, she laid out board and word games that she got from donations centers in downtown Santa Rosa. A parent gave her a teacher’s desk, which she placed in the center of the makeshift class.

“It’s amazing to me that I lost my school a month ago and I have everything I need to have for a new class. The community really came together,” said Facciano, who for the past five years taught at Hidden Valley Satellite.

Facciano said all but one of her 16 students returned after the fire. While they miss their former classroom and campus, she said they’re happy to be back together.

“We’re trying to find ways to cope and move on,” she said. “We’re trying to find the positivity.”