At Hidden Valley Elementary School, students and teachers navigate a new normal
Pop music bounced from the speakers and reverberated from the classroom walls, while kids raced around the playground, tracing loose patterns across the pavement as buses rolled into position. School was out for the day, but Hidden Valley Elementary School was still buzzing with energy.
“We didn’t know exactly what to expect from over the summer,” said Brad Coscarelli, the school’s new principal.
He was sitting next to Kim McKay, a kindergarten teacher who taught his four children, reflecting on the promise of a new school year.
In October, the Tubbs fire burned McKay’s classroom at Hidden Valley Satellite off Parker Road. The school was completely destroyed in the firestorm, displacing more than 80 students from kindergarten to second grade. Hidden Valley Elementary, a school of more than 500 students, was left standing. For students displaced by the fire, the larger campus was both a welcoming and intimidating place as classes resumed.
“She was terrified, really,” said Julie Lees, whose 5-year-old daughter, Emily, attended kindergarten at the satellite campus. Less than two months into the school year, Emily had been learning the rules, routines and rhythms of kindergarten.
She knew her teacher, Ms. McKay, had taught her older brothers. She had made friends in her class. Both parents worked at Keysight Technologies, just a few minutes’ walk from her school.
Then, everything changed overnight.
October’s Tubbs fire destroyed thousands of homes and structures in Santa Rosa, including the Leeses’ Fountaingrove home and the Hidden Valley Satellite campus. The massive blaze also damaged several Keysight office buildings.
“We saw our house on fire on the news,” Julie Lees said. “We’d heard about the satellite. We’d seen our house, and now we’re thinking our work had burned down as well.”
Three weeks after the fires, Emily started school again — this time, attending Hidden Valley Elementary’s main campus. It was a period of rapid change for the Lees family. But they were far from alone.
Between the two Hidden Valley campuses, about a quarter of the student population — around 161 students — lost their homes in October.
“I had eight students in my class of 19 who had lost their homes and their school,” McKay said. “They had a new home or living situation. In addition, they had a new school with a new set of rules.”
Hidden Valley Elementary found creative ways to accommodate satellite campus teachers and the 83 students who followed them to the main campus. Reading spaces became improvised classrooms. Books and dividers played the part of walls. With files lost to the flames, some teachers had less than two days to set up their classrooms and design new lesson plans.
Kim McKay’s classroom was tucked into a corner of the after-school child care room on the west end of the main campus. Friends and fellow teachers helped stock her improvised classroom. She called the period a “complete blur.”
“For us, it was kind of a culture shock,” McKay said. “We went from a school of 85 to a school up here that was over 500. My kids’ heads were literally on a swivel. It was information and stimulus overload.”
Enrollment has fluctuated at the school. On the first day of school last year, combined enrollment at the Hidden Valley schools was 602 students, according to office manager Kristin Colgrove. This year, it’s at 537 students — significantly less, but still 19 more students than the main campus had last year.
Coscarelli, the former principal at Santa Rosa High School, said Hidden Valley is focusing on “wellness, on resiliency, on the health of everybody” in the new school year. A school counselor now works with students on a full-time basis.
Even as Hidden Valley starts the school year united, some parents expressed hope that the small satellite campus would be rebuilt.
Rick Edson, assistant superintendent of business services at Santa Rosa City Schools, said neither the district nor Keysight Technologies has put forward plans to rebuild. But the idea of housing an “educational facility” on the now-cleared patch of land has been discussed in meetings between the district and company, he said.
“We have had conversations with Keysight, and there is interest from them to have some type of educational facility at that site,” Edson said. “We’re interested in at as well. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like at this point.”
Meanwhile, Kim McKay said she is feeling grateful for the basics.
“When people say, ‘How do you like your new classroom?’ I’m like, ‘It has four walls,’” McKay said. “I have no complaints. I have walls.”