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Sonoma County college students are cutting back on classes, with some abandoning school altogether as they face challenges and uncertainties in the aftermath of the North Bay wildfires.

Nearly 125 Santa Rosa Junior College students quit school and another 290 dropped one or more classes in the weeks after the wind-whipped firestorm erupted Oct. 8 in Calistoga and roared across the hills to Santa Rosa, decimating neighborhoods and killing 24 people in Sonoma County. College officials said 900 students lost their homes in the fires, which exacerbated an already tight housing market.

Some students moved in with relatives, while others left the county after not finding new housing. College officials said they’ll likely see enrollment decline further as more people are pushed out of their current rentals. Housing advocates say some tenants have already seen rent increases since the fires. Others reported getting eviction notices.

“There’s still so much uncertainty with housing. Housing was already an issue before the fires,” said Pedro Avila, SRJC’s student services vice president. “That’s the unknown for us — how many are going to leave the area.”

Sonoma State University had 55 students and 26 faculty and staff lose homes in the fires. All but two students have returned to campus, spokeswoman Shirley Melikian Armbruster said.

The wildfires’ ripple effects come at a time when SRJC already was struggling with enrollment, in part because of a drop in the number of Sonoma County public schools students following the economic recession. Avila, however, is counting on upcoming changes to the student registration process and a doubling down on outreach efforts to attract more students and bring some financial stability to the campus of 36,000 students. About 60 percent of the students enrolled in credit courses come directly from the high schools, he said.

The junior college had to trim its overall spending by 2.7 percent earlier this year to close a $3.4 million budget shortfall caused primarily by declining enrollment.

“We might lose some more enrollment because of the fires, but we’re hopeful some of the changes that we’re making will help increase some of our yield rates within the high school population and also the community,” Avila said. “Our goal right now is to stabilize.”

Starting next year, students will be able to register for both summer and fall semesters in April. That’ll allow seniors to enroll in courses before graduating from high school and going on summer break, said Michelle Poggi, the college’s student outreach director. She said students don’t always follow through with enrollment when it’s done in June.

“They’re off on their summer break and having a good time, enjoying being out of school,” Poggi said. “The college enrollment process floats away and they don’t come back.”

The college recently expanded its student outreach team, adding about a half-dozen employees to work with the local high schools. Poggi said her team started reaching out to seniors in October, much earlier than in previous years. In addition to admission application workshops, they’ll offer on-site English and math placement tests.

Avila said these recruitment efforts are becoming increasingly more important as the number of high school graduates continues to decline in the county and throughout the nation. The college saw its student numbers drop by 27 percent over the past decade, in part from the declining enrollment at Sonoma County public schools.

“People aren’t having as many kids as they use to,” Avila said. “This next generation is not as big as the previous generation.”

The college also has been adapting to a change in its student demographics.

Sonoma County’s K-12 public schools have become more diverse over the last two decades, with Latinos representing nearly half the student population, almost triple the number from 1995. Avila said many of the students will become the first in their families to go to college and will need assistance navigating the college admissions and registration process.

“We’re innovating and we’re doing it to respond to local changes over demographics, the fires and community needs,” Avila said.

He said they were working on implementing the projects before the wildfires erupted and forced them to seek relief from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office for the drop in enrollment.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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