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.
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
Read all of the PD’s fire coverage here