The school shuffle

Over the summer, schools closed, moved and reinvented themselves

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Musical chairs:
Besides schools changing buildings, some principals are moving around as well. Ted Sullivan is going from Citrus Elementary to Chapman. Maureen Stuempfig is moving from Chapman to Hooker Oak. Rod Stone is going from Jay Partridge to McManus. Eric Snedeker will lead Loma Vista, with Dave Scott taking over as director of pupil personnel services for the CUSD.

Cathy Oviedo is “home.” That’s what she calls the little school in Nord where she went to elementary school, where she taught, where her children learned and where she has come out of retirement to serve as the first principal of what is now Nord Country School.

The public charter school is set to open next week, in an against-all-odds success story that speaks to the farming community’s desire to keep intact not only its school but the center of life in Nord.

The mood is 180 degrees from what it was last spring, when Chico Unified School District trustees voted to close the school in a move administrators told the board would save nearly $165,000. Even before the school year ended, district workers showed up to deconstruct the classrooms, taking out computers and other property.

Now, the school has been reborn. Volunteers are joining up as fast as the school can fingerprint them for safety. One father called a buddy at Dell to get a deal on new flatscreen computers. A neighbor brought in two huge sacks of crayons.

“What it represents is commitment and interest,” said Marcia Worden, who fought to get the charter developed and accepted by the CUSD and state. While some of the donations are large, many are small, and Worden is certain the momentum can be sustained long-term. “We see the need of these children for education, for the tight, comfortable, secure environment that you can find here.”

Sixty students are signed up, about as many as attended last year, and the school hopes to eventually grow to 100. Because Nord Country School got students the CUSD expected to house, the district’s “savings” was cut by nearly $90,000.

Well aware that many thought the tiny town couldn’t make a go of it, the school’s supporters are bending over backward to make sure the school is even better than it was before.

For starters, said Worden, “we’re going to be very responsive to family needs.” That means an after-school program, special services for the Spanish-speaking community and homework help. Every step of the way, the “Founders’ Group,” an offshoot of the Nord-Cana Community Association that formed during a previous threat to close the school, has had to think creatively.

For bus service, they’ve got Cabs 4 Kids running two routes. For food, the school contracted with Hamilton Union Elementary School after the CUSD declined to provide it.

The previous school office manager and one former teacher were hired by Nord Country School, and the two teachers who opted to leave did so only after letting it be known they support the charter.

The other shuttered school, Jay Partridge Elementary, did not fare as well. Its students were dispersed among nearby schools and the site was claimed by the district’s alternative education program, including Fair View High School and, temporarily, the junior high Center for Alternative Learning.

“We came out when school was still in session at Jay Partridge and kind of scoped things out,” said Bernie Vigallon, the director of alternative education for the CUSD. “It was difficult. We intruded on an emotional time.”

HOME AGAIN <br>Principal Cathy Oviedo looks over school supplies with 8-year-old Jessie Messenger. Jessie lives down the street from what is now Nord Country School and said she wasn’t too worried she’d have to go to a new school. “My parents told me it was going to be OK.” Jessie, who is going into third grade in a 2-3 combo, will have the same teacher she had last year: Kathy Dahlgren.

Photo By Tom Angel

Banners for both Fair View and CAL have been put up in the multipurpose room, but the Jay Partridge puma mascot can still be seen behind them. In the art room, students are renovating murals from the former Fair View campus so they can be put up at the new location.

The move went “extraordinarily well—beyond my wildest expectations,” Vigallon said. Now, the program has 10 acres as opposed to 4 and a student population of 225 to 250 that Vigallon expects to grow to the 400-range soon after the other schools get underway.

School started there on July 26, and last week students already seemed at ease, playing field hockey on the blacktop and gossiping in the hallways. The words of teens who felt blindsided by the move and chastised the school board a couple of months ago were chalked up to the heat of the moment. And Vigallon was also able to calm the fears of neighboring business owner Bill Thornton, who worried that his Chevron station would be overrun by unruly kids. “He’s turned out to be our biggest advocate,” Vigallon said.

He said there are a few things to get used to, such as the low-to-the-ground drinking fountains, “Shetland pony” toilets and pint-sized tables in the air-conditioned multipurpose room. “For us old guys to try and have lunch and get up off those benches [is a challenge],” Vigallon said. An enclosed play area was fashioned for the Young Parent Program so toddlers could play protected from busy East Avenue.

The departure of Fair View and CAL made way for Chico Country Day School, which, as a district-sanctioned charter, was legally entitled to the site.

The move affords the 400-student school more space, and in a setting less industrial than its former home wedged behind a furniture store and a paint store. It also means much lower rent—around $50,000 a year rather than $163,000.

“It’s nice to be in a ‘real’ school and have ‘real’ classrooms,” said Margaret Reece-Gazda, who directs the school. She’s also excited about the neighborhood, and being close to Chico’s downtown.

School leaders opted to replace flooring and paint much of the inside of the building, but for the most part the former Fair View site was move-in ready. The former Young Parent Program child care area proved the perfect spot for CCDS’s preschool program. The school also plans to add a middle school in 2006-07.

Gazda said the move took a lot of work, but was accomplished with the help of volunteers, including Chico Rotary, which moved the library. “It’s been a big community effort to move us here,” he said. “We didn’t have professional movers.” Even the play structure was moved to the new location. “It made the kids feel real good to have that there.”

The school held a picnic last week to show the students around.

Assemblyman Rick Keene, R–Chico, will be at the West 11th Street site at 8 a.m. Aug. 19 for a ribbon-cutting/ flag salute.

The exit of CCDS from the rented buildings off Cohasset Road near East Avenue makes room for a long-desired community school that will include expelled students and those in similarly tenuous enrollment situations. Once remodeling is complete, in mid-September, about 120 seventh through 12th graders within the CUSD boundaries will be reclaimed from the county schools’ community school and educated in the new Academy for Change. CAL will move into another part of the former CCDS campus.

Oakdale, the district’s independent study program, will be housed at Bidwell Junior High School rather than a rented strip mall.

It’s also the last year for year-round education, barring a turn-around by the school board, which last spring voted to end the practice to save money.

The district has acknowledged all these moves won’t save as much money as administrators originally thought, but they aren’t looking back now.