First-graders, on the left, line up for recess after lunch as second-graders head to the cafeteria at Roseland Elementary on Wednesday, April 6, 2011. The school staggers lunch periods by grade levels because of the large number of students.

Roseland to build new elementary school

For nearly 100 years, Roseland School District has been served by two elementary schools: Sheppard and Roseland. In August 2012, they will be joined by a third.

Roseland Creek Elementary School, planned for Burbank Avenue, will break ground in May and soon ease crowding at Roseland and Sheppard, even as other area districts are dealing with a drop in students.

"This is very unusual. There are districts closing schools and here we are opening one," said Rosie Greco, the district's business manager. "It's been Roseland and Sheppard forever. They are pretty much hand in hand. This is a huge step for the district."

Bucking a countywide trend of declining enrollment, Roseland has more than doubled its attendance numbers in the past two decades, growing by more than 1,200 students. The surge has been particularly acute in the past five years when more than 560 students were added to the rolls.

"I don't have an inch of space that is not a classroom," said Superintendent Gail Ahlas. "We have tables in our hallways. In our gymnasium, we have a little corner in one of the rooms (for study). It's not optimum."

Latino students make up 90 percent of the student body, up from 62 percent a decade ago and 34 percent in 1993-94. Currently, 4 percent of students are white, down from 17 percent 10 years ago and 43.5 percent in 1993.

In the same 10-year span, Sonoma County's Latino population has grown from 19 percent to 25 percent, according to recently released census figures.

Santa Rosa's overall population grew 13.7 percent, from 147,595 people in 2000 to 167,815 residents last year.

The growth was largely due to a dramatic 69.4 percent increase in the city's Latino population, which numbered 47,970 Santa Rosans when the census was taken last April.

In the three census tracts that loosely comprise the city's Roseland neighborhood - bound by Highway 12, Highway 101, Hearn Avenue and Stony Point Road - the overall population increased by 7.1 percent to 14,504 residents. The number of Roseland residents under 18 years of age actually declined in the past 10 years, from 4,555 in 2000 to 4,476 last year.

The 32.7 percent increase in the number of Latinos under 18, from 2,624 to 3,497, was offset by an equally large decrease in the number of white school-age kids, which went from 1,203 to 5,79, a drop of 51.9 percent. Census figures for specific age groups, such as elementary school age kids, will be released later this year.

The new school project - paid for entirely by state funds set aside for designated financial hardship districts - hit a hurdle in 2008 when the state froze school construction funding as it grappled with its ongoing financial crisis.

The district is eligible for $28 million in state funding, but the project ground to a halt soon after the district purchased 11.4 acres on Burbank Avenue for $7.3 million.

The stall in construction may have helped the district in the end, Greco said.

The faltering economy has improved the bidding environment for those looking to build. District officials just three years ago thought they would not have enough funding to construct a cafeteria/multipurpose room. Today, that portion of the project is back on.

"We are ready to roll, which is so exciting," Ahlas said of the planned groundbreaking in May.

The district's 1,600 kindergarten through sixth-graders will be equally divided between the three campuses when Roseland Creek opens, Greco said.

District officials plan to create an individual focus for each of the three elementary campuses, with Roseland Creek expected to feature an environmental education to take advantage of the creek that runs through a corner of the property, Ahlas said.

The new construction will not mean a slate of new teachers, as state funding only covers construction. Aside from a new principal to be hired by next year, existing staffing levels will likely remain, Ahlas said.

"I think it's important to understand that there is not new funding that comes with this," she said.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza and News Researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this story. Staff writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at She can be reached at 526-8671 or

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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