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School Board, Haley Lay Groundwork for School Reconfiguration

Superintendent Robert Haley said Monday night that it's important to move quickly to get potential students enrolled for next school year. Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified is expected to hold a public meeting at next month's board meeting.

To combat what Superintendent Robert Haley called a culture over the last decade of budget cuts, staff layoffs and school closures, the school board met at a special meeting Monday night to consider district reconfiguration. At the top of the agenda was an item to look at re-opening La Fiesta Elementary — a move widely supported by board trustees.

Here's how the reconfiguration would look:

Thomas Page Elementary, located in Cotati: K-8. This school would expand from K-6 to include 7th and 8th grade students, lessening the burden on Lawrence E. Jones Middle School and creating more choices for students. District officials are weighing a curriculum for Thomas Page focused on science and the environment. This reconfiguration is made in part, as a response to parents asking for a smaller, more familial school. This school is also up for a possible charter school, but Haley said Monday night that it's not likely going to happen.

John Reed and Waldo Rohnert: Together, these schools serve about 730 students — which is a small amount, according to district officials. The reconfiguration would split the schools, sending K-3 to John Reed and 4-6 to Waldo. The campuses would technically be one school, held at two sites.

Marguerite Hahn Elementary: K-6. A school that's long been noted as "a gifted and talented magnet school" for the district, school officials say. No change.

Evergreen Elementary: K-6. Focused on visual and performing arts, this school is touted as being "outstanding" academically. No change.

Monte Vista Elementary: K-6. This school, with an emphasis on science and technology, this site is also especially focusing on college and career prep by creating learning pathways for students. No change.

La Fiesta Elementary: New K-6. School would incorporate multi-age classrooms, that take on a developmental approach. Parents and students would work with the district to govern the school. Opening would be Fall 2012. Current lease agreements with the Sonoma County Office of Education would be upheld, but district officials said details are still being worked out. As of January, the county office of education holds three separate leases, one for an Adaptive Technology Center, for a California Children’s Services program and for two other wings. Rent paid for 2011-2012 is $220,667, which goes back to the district.

Lawrence E. Jones Middle School: Grades 6-8. Currently serving a small class of 6th graders, the former Creekside Middle School would be more balanced with grades 6-9, to alleviate what officals called crowding. Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Kaufman says that would give students a chance to choose to attend 6th grade either at the elementary or at the junior high level.

Rancho Cotate High and Tech High: School officials say both could benefit by increased enrollment from reconfiguration.

The board Monday night emphasized creating an identity for the district — and floated ideas such as creating a specialty environment and technology curriculum at Thomas Page, forming Spanish-English immersion classes, holding classes year-round at one campus and finding ways to implement more programs centered around the arts, sports and sciences.

The crux behind all the moves is to halt interdistrict transfers and lower class sizes — cited as the most dire problems for a district with steady declining enrollment over the last decade. Nearly 700 students have left the district this school year, Haley said, as he presented a six-inch wide binder full of yellow transfer slips.

Cotati-Rohnert Park has experienced the in district enrollment countywide. This year, 5,913. students were enrolled. Compare that with 8,300 10 years ago.

"We know parents are leaving to go to other school districts because class sizes are lower," in early December. "The most important thing in our school district, for me, is keeping families and students enrolled here."

Kaufman and Haley estimated that 95 percent of interdistrict transfers since the closure of La Fiesta were from the neighborhood, in L Section. The majority of those students have tranferred to Gravenstein Union School District in Sebastopol, they said.

"We're still researching how many students we retained from the closure," Kaufman said.

Kaufman said in opening La Fiesta, the district is still examining what it would cost to enroll a first class of students; to pay for district transportation at Thomas Page and what kinds of instructional focus the sites would have.

Transportation alone would cost $200,000 a year — most of which is subsidized by the district.

"The current proposal for the state budget eliminates all of that funding for future years," said Anne Barron, the district chief financial officer. "If there is no funding, we are considering eliminating our home to school transportation program."

However, she said, "reopening La Fiesta would reduce the number of families affected by ending that program. The concept is that some students currently being transported to Thomas Page would again have a school in their neighborhood within walking distance."

Transportation changes would not impact special education students, however.

Officials wants to attract back students who may have migrated out of the city, and from other schools within the district. Preliminary numbers show that roughly 120 kids who would be attending K-6 grades next year live in L Section and attend other schools in the district, and an additonal 98 go to other schools outside the district.

Kaufman said deciding what grades to enroll largely depends on the interest by parents and students.

"We're wondering if families from other parts of the district, like Hahn and Evergreen, might want to come back to their home school," she said. "Our goal is to listen to what the community wants."

Haley and the board acknowledged that it was "incredibly difficult" closing La Fiesta and Goldridge in 2008, followed by Mountain Shadows Middle School in 2010. Total savings for those three closures was estimated at nearly $1.3 million annually, according to an article published Monday in the Press Democrat. Rohnert Park Patch is awaiting more detailed numbers on acutal savings from Barron. She has our request, and we'll keep you posted.

"We've made really tough choices to remain fiscally solvent," Haley said. "But we can't continue to cut our way to success."

Kaufman, who is researching the reconfiguration, stressed the desire to identify something unique at each school, to help spark life in the district. She said what triggered the reorganization was a series of community meetings that resulted in requests to re-open La Fiesta, and to provide a better education at each grade level.

"We noticed we have a lot of combination classes — grades one and two together, for example, three and four or five and six," she said. "We looked at the numbers and we could have smaller class sizes, while at the same time having fewer combination classes."

She said ultimately, the move would benefit the students by allowing teachers to focus on one grade and giving students more time to master their curriculum.

“Standards are very different if you’re in 3rd grade than if you’re in 4th,” she added. “Rather than teaching two grade levels at once,  teaching each at once really gives kids double the learning time and combines efficiency with instructional focus.”

Board trustees raised questions about the stability and safety of the former La Fiesta, about how much it would cost to get classes started there, about how to further develop magnet schools and how many students would be enrolled initially.

While Kaufman said that each grade would be opened based on interest, Haley defferred questions about infrastructure and cost to the next scheduled board meeting, set for Feb. 14.

Kaufman said that some retrofits at La Fiesta may have already been undertaken by the county office of education; and said that 1990 bond monies could potentially be used for renovation.

"We're trying to be really conservative with how our bond monies are spent," she said.

Trustee Karyn Pulley said she was in support of the changes, but said that district officials should be aware of sensitive issues such as cultural needs, demographic shifts and cost.

"Closing the schools wasn't pretty," she said.

Pulley also asked about the timeline for opening, and what kinds of infrastructure needs are expected.

Board President Ed Gilardi echoed Pulley's concerns about rising costs.

"What kinds of infrastructure costs are we talking about in re-opening?" he said. "Cuts, closures and layoffs have overshadowed everything we're doing."

Trustees Andrew Longmire and Marc Orloff agreed at a need to look at costs, and added that the district should focus on special programs and coordinating with the cities of Cotati and Rohnert Park.

A small group of parents and teachers came out Monday night to air concerns and praise.

"I'm concerned at the speed with which this is taking place," said Ben Condor, a teacher and parent in the district. "Why have the teachers not been involved? We should slow down instead of reconfiguring first."

Haley later said that sometimes too much planning can slow down progress. Partly joking, he said sometimes what it takes is "ready, fire, aim."

"Families are making choices about what they're doing educationally for next year now," Haley said. "Meanwhile schools like Gravenstein are more than happy to keep taking our students."

"What it's really about is student achievement," he added. "We have what it takes to get families to flock here."

Some teachers agreed.

"I love this," said Janice Little, a former La Fiesta teacher who now teaches 6th grade at Waldo Rohnert Elementary. "Our community is dying — we need change. My concern is are we sending the message that we don't know what we're doing, but I see lots of good ideas."

Amy Goodwin, who is the former principal of La Fiesta, said she's looking forward to the change.

"I think we still have a lot to find out, but I'm excited" she said.

Haley downplayed any impact on district employees, saying they've already given enough — but he did say some movement was possible.

Editor's note: The district will consider the re-opening at the Feb. 14 regularly-scheduled board meeting, and hear public comments. The community is encouraged to come out and participate. After the February meeting, Haley said a decision can be expected as soon as March, in order to get students enrolled in August for fall semester.

Corrections have been made since the original version of this story: We originally said Lawrence Jones would be grades 6-9, it is in fact, grades 6-8. In addition, original enrollment numbers did not include special education students.

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