Oak Tree School > 8. Rebuilding

“[Grizzly Hill Elementary School] is [in] a good place. I think that we’ve turned a big corner with the school, and I want the community to know at-large that they have a good school in their back yard. I hope people continue to make choices to send their kids there, because the benefit is it’s their community, and they’ll make the school what is and what it needs to be.”

—James Berardi, Twin Ridges School District superintendent and Grizzly Hill School principal


In the mid-1980s, the San Juan Union School District combined with the nearby Washington School District to form the Twin Ridges School District. With the population growing, Grizzly Hill Elementary School was built to accommodate 4th through 8th grade, and Oak Tree School continued for kindergarten through 3rd grade. Throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s, the San Juan Ridge school system experienced what many described as a “Golden Age”. In 1990, Grizzly Hill Elementary School was recognized as a Distinguished School by the state of California.

Caleb Dardick: We were happy to be back [at Oak Tree School]. It was beautiful. We had some of our old teachers, plus a bunch of new teachers. … The poets and the writers and the artists came back. And it was special again. We were happy to be back.

Holly Tornheim: A lot of what was created [when] the building was being built [by the community] continued on. … There was a lot of adult volunteering that went on when the school was running. … Certainly when Bruce and my daughter started going … to the rebuilt Oak Tree School, and then to Grizzly Hill School, there were lots and lots parents coming in and helping out. It’s a very, very important thing. I think that’s what led to Grizzly Hill being designated a distinguished school.

Tony Mociun: [Brian Buckley] was just this really calm, accepting guy, and just had these great ideas. [Normally] parents [would] only get a call from the school when the kids are being bad. He said, “I’d like each of you to call one parent a week and tell them something good.” … He was really cognizant of reaching out to the community and keeping that aspect of it alive. Grizzly Hill School [became] the northern California demonstration site for language arts. So other schools would come to us to get trained and [see] projects that we were doing. So that was a real big feather in our cap.

Brian Buckley: When I got there, it was the third year of [a $20,000] grant. … I said [to the teachers]: “We have two options here. We can try to do things on a gradual basis and it will last for two or three years. Or we can commit to spending it all and [try to qualify for] another grant.” I remember the representative from the state Department of Education came up and basically said, “It’s not going to happen.” So we got really got busy. … We raised the bar for language arts in the school. There was great teacher buy-in, and we got re-funded. We became a model school and eventually the State Department of Education had two model demonstration schools … and Grizzly Hill was the one from northern California. We got invited to lots of conferences to make presentations.

I was really lucky in my timing. [There were] teachers who had children, and their children were in the school at that time. Talk about being invested in making it the best school it could be. So it wasn’t just a job to them. They were all motivated – they would work as hard as any superstar, so to speak. The enthusiasm was great. For a group of teachers who, I think, kind of perceived themselves as iconoclasts and independent, it was probably one of the most homogeneous and motivated staffs I’ve ever worked with.

SCHOOL CHOICE

In response to the national debate about school choice, in 1992 the State passed a law allowing the creation of public charter schools. The first charter schools began operating in 1993. Twin Ridges Home Study – originally based on the San Juan Ridge – was Charter School #26. During the mid-1990s, to increase the District’s budget, an administrator from outside the community – to the dissatisfaction of many residents – pursued a financial opportunity for the District to become an administrative “umbrella” for other charter schools starting up both in Nevada County as well as other parts of California. (The law would later be changed to prevent this.) Some of these schools succeeded and eventually became independently administered in Grass Valley and Nevada City.

 With declining attendance, in the early 2000s, Oak Tree School closed and Grizzly Hill Elementary School became the sole public school on the Ridge. (Shortly thereafter a brief attempt was made by some parents to create a charter school on the Oak Tree School campus.) To compound the impact, during this time the San Juan Ridge mine – less than two miles from Grizzly Hill School – re-opened, encountered a fault during tunneling, and dewatered the well of the School and other neighboring properties. The School District is still bearing the cost of these events in many different ways.

Jenny Travers: The state decided that charter schools had a better place than vouchers for being able to take your tax dollars and send your child to the school of your choice. There was a great deal of concern in the education system about that – that private schools could suddenly be publicly funded. And the state decided that promoting charter schools would dilute that whole [debate]. So charter schools started springing up.

Betsy Abrams: [Twin Ridges Home Study] was one of the first charter schools in the [state]. … However, we were one of the only charters that absolutely said that the teachers in the home study program were going to continue on the seniority list of the district. That was a very, very rare thing to happen in a charter. Usually the charters are completely independent – the teachers have no rights, they’re not union members, and they can easily be fired. I’m the one who pushed that because I would not sign [it] … unless that was part of the charter.

Jenny Travers: Well, in spite of the fact that I spent several years working in a charter, I mourn the loss of community-centered school. I think communities are very rare, and communities where you get to know one another because your kids are all at the same school [and playing together]. I think we’ve lost a large amount of community when the world opened up to charters and choice. Having worked in a charter – I also have to say – people are so lucky to have that choice. Because I bumped into all kinds of families who are not structure people, they’re not traditional people, and they would be struggling to support their children in a public school.

Betsy Abrams: A pivotal change was the charter schools opening: Yuba River Charter (a Waldorf methods school) and [Nevada City] School of the Arts. And then what happened was there was a great exodus from the district of families who were more involved with their children’s education. They felt like the schools weren’t offering the arts anymore, and they found that those other schools had much more to offer. So people left, and the district really shrunk in size. And that’s still true to this day. I think that was the pivotal change.

DeOnne Noel: Traditional schools were totally tied into [state and federal regulations], and had so little freedom about how to spend money, and about how to teach. The regulations were so disastrous to the field of education. The charter schools offered a way out from that. The state and federal government had less say over how they reach their goals in charter schools. Whereas in traditional schools, there was so little freedom.

Jenny Travers: Anybody who has studied ethics, knows [the question]: is it the good of the group or the good of the individual? I think the good of the group gets lost a bit when you start spreading kids out. When we talk about our children being our future, a lot of the children who have not [been] in a community school have lost that community experience.

Darlene Markey: [At first, students were] bussed into Yuba River Charter and Nevada City School of the Arts – which flourished. [They were less attended] at the time and now they have a lot of our students. [They] are both awesome schools, but it’s taken the community off the Ridge. And the resources off the Ridge. Before, we could have after school programs, arts programs and dancing and martial arts. But we don’t anymore. So it’s very sad for me because I watched my own children grow up with a good solid group of friends – they knew their neighbors. And now that the district has changed, kids don’t know their neighbors. [For example,] one child is going to Grizzly Hill School, and another child is going to Yuba River Charter in town. “Oh. You’re my age, and I don’t know you.” So I think it kind of damaged our community. I think we were much tighter back then.

Kurt Lorenz: [Our schools] were what the charter school people claimed they wanted. We had that here. And we had it because of, in part, unusual demographics. We had a number of families with kids whose parents [had] graduate degrees and were very educated and very interested in involving their children in their jobs. And a very rich environment. There was a great deal of parent volunteering and interplay families between the school system and home. Schools were not just a place where you send your kid during the day because the law says you have to. It was a core piece of the sense of the fabric of the community.

[Ed. note: The issue of school choice is an inherently personal one. For the purposes of this exhibition, we have decided to focus mainly on how choice has directly impacted the School District on the San Juan Ridge. We did interview some local parents who have enrolled children in charter schools. However, due to the sensitive nature of the debate, we decided that this exhibition would not be the appropriate forum to present that side of the story.]

TODAY

In 2011, James Berardi became the principal of Grizzly Hill Elementary School and the superintendent of the Twin Ridges School District.

James Berardi: The overall community, the environment of the school – I think that it had a dark cloud. The Ridge years ago was a very powerful place, and I think why the school system was so powerful was that it was community-driven. There were involved parents, a lot of the teachers there had students in the school themselves, and it was thriving. And I think it fell into kind of dark times after that. .. A lot of people would hold a function, … and we wouldn’t get a lot of people showing up. And I think the big issue was to develop a sense of community, a family again, and try to get those people to come back into the school system itself. And remove – via a fresh breath – the dark cloud that seemed to be hanging over the district for a number of years.

The appeal to me [of working in a small community] is massive. … That “smallism” creates a very unique opportunity to know all the kids personally. I know their names, I know their families, and that really makes a big difference in how effective you can be in the long run. Because they’re not just faces in a crowd. I enjoy working there for those reasons, and it’s like a family.

There’s not many places like this left anymore. Over the years, in education, they’ve consolidated – they’ve made districts and small schools close down, they’re trying to get districts to combine. When you talk about Washington [Elementary School], there’s no schools like that [anymore]: a one-room schoolhouse that has six kids in it. That’s an oddity, that’s a throw-back to the 1850s in California. But if you look at Grizzly Hill School, even that is small. It’s unique in many different ways. And it has limitations because of its size, but it has a uniqueness of being close where you can work one on one with the children, and you really know who they are.

Charters have their place, but being part of a public school system, I think, is the backbone of America. Why we do what we do, and why we have free education in this country is [so that we can] be an educated populous, and so we can participate in our own government. I think that public schools are the backbone of that and they always have been. And it’s sad to me that a lot of public schools are taking the brunt of the loss of students and things. [When] you lose students, you lose dollars. Of course, it’s not about making money, but when you lose [students and money], you lose programs. And it becomes very difficult. There’s a place for [charter schools], but people still need to back public education. I believe in that thoroughly.

Roo Cantada: I feel like community is where it’s at, and if you want to make things better, you participate in the community. And so, it was a very logical choice for her to be able to put her at the school. She was going there since before she was born and then she accompanied me there until she was about a year old. I never entertained any other alternative.

Mondy Kowal: So our community’s grown, and it’s sort of spread out, because people are going to town, and often people who want to really enrich their kids are taking the effort to go to these specialized schools in town. But there is a core group of people that have been working to make Grizzly Hill a really dynamic place. And it’s a process that’s happening. It’s going and continually morphing and changing, as schools do.

CLOSING WORDS

Theo des Tombe: Oak Tree School is [still] just this golden hilltop of potential. … It’s still in fantastic shape – just solidly built structures with great feelings. It’s amazing. [Seeing it recently] gave me just a little bit of nostalgic-like memories of Oak Tree School and how fun it was: there used to be a pump that would pump water out of the ground; and it had these streams going through an amazing playground; and the buses would come up and there was this one-way loop, and it was just a fantastic central spot.

Mondy Kowal: [We need to] go beyond the prejudice we all have – because we’re all humans – and just be proud. And just think about how much different our lives are when we step into something with a sense of, “I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of what I’m doing. I’m proud of where I’m from. … I came from the Ridge.” There’s so many aspects to it, but it’s a place of strength. And it’s a place of wildness.

Holly Tornheim: [There is a spirit on the Ridge] of service and can-do – do something for the good of the people who live here, the kids who live here. … One of the things very important to me [while] working on the school was that there were people from all walks of life: different religions, different ages, women working, doing construction, children seeing this happen and also helping out with some things. … And I just want to thank all those people. A number of them are not alive anymore, but I remember them, with gratitude.

Caleb Dardick: I think a lot of the kids [who grew up on the Ridge] have this amazing balance of being great intellectuals and incredibly well read and very intelligent, just like their parents, but also incredibly skilled tradesmen. … So there’s a lot to be said for that ability to split your own wood, and to read and understand great literature. And we were raised to think that was natural… I think that’s still with us – we’re not gonna freak out when the lights go out, you know?

Jeff Gold: I feel that in rural communities, there’s a continued spirit about doing things together – the communal act of sharing and putting our hands and hearts together. And I think that will be around for as long as our species is around. And that, to me, that’s the core of the legacy of this project. This just happened to have been a good example of that, where there seemingly is less of it [now]. But I think it’s deep in our bones.