Last summer, members of the inaugural class at Achieve Charter High School spent their break differently than most incoming ninth-graders. They painted, landscaped, stained picnic tables and put finishing touches on church buildings that once housed a school. By Aug. 15, opening day, they had helped restore a campus to call their own.
On Nov. 8, those living nearby saw the site in flames as they escaped the Camp Fire down Clark Road. Calvary Baptist Church did not survive the wildfire that destroyed most of Paradise.
“They were driving by it and hearts were breaking, thinking of all the work they put into creating their school,” said Casey Taylor, executive director of Achieve Charter School, whose high school grew out of an elementary and middle school established in 2005.
The disaster also displaced Achieve’s other campus at St. Thomas More Catholic Church—as well as Paradise Unified School District (PUSD) sites and other schools on the Ridge, private and charter. Achieve found a new home at Life Church in Chico. On Dec. 3, when schools reopened countywide, 44 of 50 Achieve high-schoolers and 205 of its 236 kindergarteners though eighth-graders settled back into classrooms.
Those numbers have waned. With the rebuild of Paradise protracted, Taylor said an Achieve family leaves the area on a weekly basis. The K-8 enrollment is now 186, ninth grade 42.
Next year, Achieve is full for most grades, but the wait list has just 39 versus the usual 200—and as of Monday (March 25), just 34 had signed up for ninth grade and the new 10th grade combined. The high school, anticipating more students than composed the inaugural class, had staffed up heading into the year with six teachers and two administrators.
Last Wednesday night (March 20), Achieve’s board decided to suspend high school operations for next year at a minimum. The K-8 school will continue for two years, at least, in facilities under construction at Life Church.
“Waiting until the last minute or this summer wouldn’t be doing anybody any favors,” Taylor said of the decision, referring to students and staff. Representatives from the Butte County Office of Education, which oversees the high school’s charter, attended the emotion-filled meeting. Taylor said students cried throughout the next day after hearing the news.
“I feel heartbroken for the high school,” said Taylor, who’d spearheaded a contentious battle with PUSD over the charter—getting denied by the district twice and finally turning to the county for approval.
“Our kids have been angry and bitter and frustrated about the fire,” she added, “but once they knew this was going to be the final year of Achieve Charter High, they decided to make it the best few months together of their lives, and they’re not going to take anything for granted.”
K-12 education on the Ridge comprises the Paradise school district, six charter campuses and a private school, Paradise Adventist Academy (PAA). After the fire, PAA and Core Butte consolidated with their affiliated locations in Chico. Paradise Charter Middle School, Children’s Community Charter School and Home Tech Charter—like Achieve—also secured Chico sites.
PUSD has classes spread across northern Butte County. The district set a goal of keeping students with their teachers, so it accepted space where it could find it, such as the old Orchard Supply Hardware store. PUSD also leased an industrial complex by the Chico Municipal Airport to reconstitute Paradise High, and put Paradise Elementary students in Oroville.
Even so, Superintendent Michelle John told the CN&R, “We’re Paradise Unified—we can’t stay down here for the three to five years it’s going to take people to rebuild.”
Thus, PUSD plans to start the next school year back home. K-6 students on the Upper Ridge will attend one of the two Magalia schools, Pine Ridge or Cedarwood. All other K-6 students will go to Paradise Intermediate, and Paradise High will become a 7-12 school.
“If, in fact, it’s safe,” John emphasized. The two Paradise campuses must pass soil and air-quality tests, and need clean water—PUSD hopes to drill sealed wells, but if that’s not possible, it will install storage tanks.
PAA will remain at Chico Seventh-day Adventist Church next year as repairs to its campus continue. Children’s Community Charter, at this point, also expects to stay put. Core Butte’s Paradise campus is gone, but Paradise Charter Middle School and Home Tech expect to reoccupy their campuses in the fall.
For the district, attendance will be, in John’s words, “a gamble.” Enrollment already has declined: Before the fire, PUSD had 3,386 K-12 students, including 839 in high school. The total dipped to 1,924 in January, roughly the same as this month’s report of 1,956.
Both Cedarwood and Pine Ridge are full for fall, John said, with 260 students per campus. PUSD estimates an upside of 500 elementary students and 700 students total for grades 7-12. Based on other communities recovering from disasters, John said the district total could fall below 1,300, roughly a third of the pre-fire enrollment.
PUSD will offer bus transportation to its schools—even from Gridley, where FEMA is readying temporary housing for families, including an estimated 200 to 280 school-age children. Still, John understands that some displaced residents may choose neighborhood schools where they’ve resettled.
“In this kind of disaster, like [Hurricane] Katrina and Santa Rosa [fire], you only retain 30 percent of your population,” John said. “And no one’s had the kind of disaster we’ve had.”