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35,000 Sonoma County kids return to school Wednesday

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Walking single file, Cesar Chavez Language Academy students nervously toured their new campus Wednesday morning — the first day of school for about 35,000 kids in Sonoma County.

Class by class, students in green and beige uniforms were taken around and shown the cafeteria, bathrooms, playgrounds and administration offices of Cook Middle School in southwest Santa Rosa. About 450 transitional kindergarten to sixth grade students at Cesar Chavez, a Spanish-language immersion charter school, will share the Sebastopol Road campus with the nearly 440 Cook middle schoolers.

“For (Cesar Chavez) to have a permanent home where we can grow and have a dynamic middle school is really exciting,” said Xavier Nazario of Santa Rosa, whose 6-year-old daughter started the second grade.

The public charter school was formerly located at the Comstock Middle School campus on West Steele Lane. But the bilingual school, which started six years ago with only 65 students, quickly outgrew the Comstock campus.

Paul Poling, the father of an 8-year-old boy starting the third grade, said he thought bringing the schools together was a good idea.

“Joining with Cook means we’ll be able to have enough students for a full middle-school experience, with a music program, clubs, sports, graduated math classes,” Poling said.

“There’s so much more space here,” Poling added as he and Nazario walked through the quad shortly after their kids went into class.

The first day of school Wednesday marked the end of summer vacation for about half the 69,500 school kids in Sonoma County. At 8 a.m., temperatures across the North Bay were already creeping up for what was one of the hottest days of the season.

Temperatures broke 100 degrees in Santa Rosa, where city school officials estimate 15,400 students at 24 schools started classes Wednesday. In Petaluma, 7,600 students returned to school.

Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, with nearly 6,200 students enrolled, started classes Tuesday, as did the Roseland School District, with about 2,900 students enrolled. Most students commence classes this week and next, with the exception of the more than 1,200 kids in the Oak Grove Union School District who start Sept. 3.

On Wednesday, Diann Kitamura, Santa Rosa City Schools superintendent, was on hand for the first day of classes at Cook and Cesar Chavez. Kitamura and Cook Principal Vicki Zands were moved by the sight of kindergartners and first graders at the Cook campus.

Cook, which started long ago as a junior high school, never hosted elementary school kids, Zands said. The school site, which has a capacity of about 900 students, was only half full, she said.

“We had very many empty classes used for storage space,” she said.

With more students now, she said, “It’s going to be very busy, not too much downtime … the cafeteria will be going all day.”

Kitamura said she and others have been impressed with the growth of the charter school.

“We knew it would grow,” she said. “I don’t know that we were prepared for the kind of culture that grew from this tiny school … It’s a culture of pride for Latino parents because it’s their roots and background, and it’s pride for the other families because their children are becoming bilingual.”

Cesar Chavez principal Rebekah Rocha said moving Cesar Chavez to the Cook campus was a herculean effort by teachers and staff members. Everything inside the school’s classrooms, day care and offices were packed into 2,000 boxes and moved, she said.

Wednesday was a chance to see the fruits of their labor, as Cesar Chavez students walked into their new classrooms.

“The teachers and staff are excited,” Rocha said. “It’s just a feeling like they’re going to make this work. We’re really excited to be here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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