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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here

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Read all of the PD’s fire coverage here

Every Monday after lunch, students and staff at Hidden Valley Satellite School gathered for a “nifty kid” assembly, where they sang songs and talked about the life skill of the month, such as perseverance or kindness. It was a fun tradition that ended when the campus was destroyed in the October wildfires, and its 80 students were sent to the main campus on Bonita Vista Drive.

“I do love the main campus, but that small little school was really special,” said Marcia Seim Bossier, a reading interventionist teacher who spent nearly five years at the satellite school.

Hidden Valley collectively saw the largest enrollment drop after the wildfires, within the Santa Rosa district. A total of 602 students were enrolled at the main and satellite campus last August. This month, school began with 537 students, currently all at the main campus, which even with the enrollment decline holds more students than it did before the fires thanks to the addition of three new portable classrooms.

Last school year, 700 students transferred out of Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest school district in Sonoma County with 16,020 students currently enrolled. The net loss was 399, since 301 new students did enroll last school year. Still, 700 gone in one year was significant.

“There’s a reason that they left the district and … we can surmise it’s potentially due to the impact of the fires,” said SRCS Superintendent Diann Kitamura.

Countywide, public schools had a net loss of 600 students last school year. An additional net loss of 1,000 students is expected by the end of this school year as more families leave the area, said Steven Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

“Many people relocated, many tried to keep kids in school during the current fiscal year for student stability, but as housing becomes more expensive we’re losing families,” Herrington said. “If you want your schools to grow, you need young families.”

The effects of the fires on Hidden Valley and the county’s other schools extend beyond reduced headcount.

“I don’t think anyone that works here can be unaffected by the fires,” said Meta George, who has taught first grade at the main campus for three years. “You have these young, young children whose whole life has just changed.”

George said her incoming class is a bit behind in math and reading. Last year, she noticed students needed more time to progress in their studies. Kids would lose concentration, or need to physically withdraw to a quiet space.

“The fires absolutely had an impact on students’ learning and progress,” George said. “Of course they’re thinking about other things when they’re living in the barn that’s still standing or above their family’s store.”

Gianna Rafael, who lives in Fountaingrove and attends sixth grade at Hidden Valley Elementary, recalled the ash, debris and confusion after the fires.

“It was weird and I didn’t know how to feel,” said Rafael, 11.

About 70,000 students are enrolled in public schools in Sonoma County. Over the past five years, about 300 to 500 students have left the county annually across its 40 public school districts. The high cost of living and lack of affordable housing cause families with young children to leave and deter others from coming here, Herrington said.

Latino Life

In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.

While falling enrollment isn’t uncommon, October’s devastating wildfires compounded the problem, wiping out 5,300 homes in the Sonoma County, including those of about 1,450 public school students and about 250 public school employees.

The increased decline in K-12 enrollment has a ripple effect on funding and resources. Santa Rosa schools projected enrollment for this school year at 16,141, but a week into the school year it was 121 students shy of that. California public schools budget based on enrollment but receive funds based on average daily attendance.

“With enrollment down, that’s going to be interesting,” Kitamura said.

It’s not just Santa Rosa City Schools that’s feeling the impact of the fires that leveled entire blocks, including in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove.

Although Schaefer Charter School in the Piner-Olivet Union School District was untouched by flames, the Tubbs fire laid waste to the surrounding Coffey Park neighborhood. About 133 students and 12 teachers in the district lost their homes.

Schaefer has about 353 students enrolled this school year, about 100 fewer students than last year, according to Schaefer Principal Kathy Harris. Because of the enrollment decline, the district reduced staff in March, although Harris didn’t have exact figures for how many teachers were let go.

“We’re looking forward to having families return” as the neighborhoods are rebuilt, Harris said.

In the Mark West Union School District, 221 students lost homes. About 40 didn’t return to the district, Superintendent Ron Calloway said. At the time of the fires, enrollment was at about 1,470, and by June the district had 1,421 students. This month, enrollment boosted to about 1,450 students.

The 40 students who left last school year were spread out among different grade levels, presenting a funding challenge for the district.

“If you lose students mid-year, you’re unable to reduce staff and you’re unable to realize any savings,” said Regina Cuculich, Mark West associate superintendent of business.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, introduced legislation to help stabilize funding for school districts affected by the fires, allowing the use of prefire average daily attendance figures for the next three years. It passed in June as part of the state budget, but Calloway said funds haven’t reached the Mark West district yet.

“There’s a little more that’s in the weeds ... There’s a process to it,” he said.

Not every district impacted by the fires has seen an enrollment decline, though.

At Roseland Collegiate Prep — grades seven through 12 — enrollment has increased from 403 last year to 494 this year, according to Roseland District Superintendent Amy Jones-Kerr.

Although it’s partially due to a new senior class, it’s still an incredible feat for the school, which was located on the site of the former Ursuline High School northeast of Santa Rosa and suffered major damage in the firestorm. The school moved to Roseland University Prep’s old campus on Sebastopol Road after that school got a new campus a month after the Tubbs fire.

The Roseland district has about 2,900 students enrolled this year and lost fewer than 10 students last year because of the fires. The district plans to purchase the former Ursuline school site this October, a year after the fires.

As families have moved out of Santa Rosa, displaced by the fires or in search of housing, districts like Windsor Unified have seen their enrollment increase.

Windsor has 134 students more this year than its projected enrollment of 4,970. Superintendent Brandon Krueger said some parents of newly enrolled students indicated they recently moved to Windsor, and a small number of those families mentioned it was due to the fires.

The financial hit to schools extends beyond enrollment issues. Public school districts countywide incurred more than $10 million in losses covered by insurance, including structural damage and cleaning costs, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Schaefer Charter School and John B. Riebli Elementary and were closed for months because of toxic ash and debris in surrounding neighborhoods. The Tubbs fire gutted the Anova school for children with autism at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, along with its auditorium.

Cardinal Newman High School lost its library, baseball field, administrative office and 20 classrooms in the Tubbs fire. Next door, Saint Rose Catholic School lost its preschool and playground, then flooded two weeks later when water pressure was restored before staff could shut off the water system or replace sprinkler heads.

In addition to Hidden Valley Satellite, the Santa Rosa school district lost in the firestorm the Santa Rosa High School farm on Alba Lane, just off Old Redwood Highway near Cardinal Newman. It plans to rebuild the farm, which received a $500,000 donation from Raley’s grocery store.

However, the district has no immediate plans to rebuild Hidden Valley Satellite.

“When I drive by where the Hidden Valley satellite was, it’s a stark reality of what has happened because there’s nothing there,” Superintendent Kitamura said.

The trauma of escaping the fires, being displaced, and losing entire neighborhoods will linger for years to come for many residents. To provide students and their families support, the Santa Rosa school district in June opened the Integrated Wellness Center, a free clinic that provides counseling, nurse services and tutoring and academic support.

The clinic currently is open after school Mondays and Wednesdays.

“The effect of the fires can be very deep and broad,” said Steve Mizera, assistant superintendent of student and family services.

Several area elementary schools also have integrated an emotional curriculum call Toolbox, developed by Dovetail Learning in Sebastopol. There are 12 “tools” in a box that students can turn to help develop resilience and empathy. For example, there’s a tape measure that remind students to breathe and calm down. Or the headphones tool that indicates a quiet, safe place.

The curriculum is used at Santa Rosa schools and in neighboring districts.

Harris said the curriculum was adopted at Schaefer School about six years ago and exhumed after the wildfires.

“What we noticed last year is that the impact kind of comes in waves, and you don’t know when that’s going to come crashing on you,” Harris said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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