Education: Coming together for the kids

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Superintendent Kelly Staley says the Chico Unified School District had space for hundreds of fire-displaced students.

Nearly a month after the Camp Fire, when smoke had cleared and schools reopened, campuses in Chico and across Butte County welcomed students from the burn zone. They arrived with the disaster still fresh; most were uncertain about how long they’d stay.

The adults—teachers and staff in the Chico Unified School District (CUSD) and independent schools—faced challenges as well. A number of these staff and students had lost homes to the fire. And, with a disaster of this scale striking a region this rural, already short on mental health professionals, educators lacked much of the trauma support they’d have gotten in a metro area.

Nonetheless, Chico schools have absorbed more displaced students than other Butte County communities and found the means to address their needs. For instance, several CUSD schools have calming rooms—spaces where students can reset emotions—and another is on the way (see “School refuge,” Healthlines, page 12.)

The challenge now, as Superintendent Kelly Staley sees it, is momentum. Families have hit a new phase in disaster recovery, she said, when fatigue and discouragement often root.

“As time goes on and that [post-disaster] reality doesn’t change, what all the experts say is people start falling apart … in months three through six,” she said. “We really are seeing—adults more than kids; I think kids are pretty resilient—people struggle.

“There are lasting impacts,” Staley added. “Some of the physical things will sort themselves out, but these emotional issues—the trauma impacts—these kids and families are going to have for years, not just months.”

Where they’ll cope represents the biggest question for schools. Both Staley and Mary Cox, executive director of CORE Butte Charter School, said this summer will mark a pivotal point for displaced families, who they anticipate will make major decisions once their kids are done with classes.

“I do worry about the future of our community, and I fear that many will have to leave the area due to lack of housing,” said Cox, who has several staff members living in RVs on other staff members’ properties. “That will absolutely affect every school and every community entity out there.”

CORE, a home-study/classroom hybrid with 900 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, lost its Paradise site. It’s accommodating another displaced charter on one of its two Chico campuses. Almost a third of CORE’s students lost homes, yet only one family has left and 30 new students enrolled.

At Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a charter senior high in Chico that draws students from beyond the city, a fifth of its 425 students were displaced, though just a dozen have left. Achieve Charter School has kept its K-8 enrollment since moving to Chico but suspended operations of its new high school (see “Lesson plans,” Newslines, March 28).

CUSD, with a total enrollment of almost 12,000, took in 321 students for spring semester. The net gain was around 240 because the Chico district lost 80 students whose families were affected by the fire.

Most of CUSD’s new enrollees are kindergarteners through eighth-graders—and among the 45 high-schoolers, most had enrolled immediately for academic reasons such as advanced placement exams and college applications.

“This is a tragedy,” Staley said, “but we made sure it doesn’t impact the rest of their lives moving forward.”

Spread across district schools with openings, the additional students fit into existing classes, so CUSD didn’t need to hire teachers. Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bultema, who oversees business and finance, told the CN&R by email that the district “increased expenditures to support the increase in students” but gained about $1 million in funding.

To address the dearth of trauma experts, Staley said CUSD brought in mental health professionals “to work with our staff so they in turn have skills to work with our kids.” Cox said CORE’s staff also underwent “extensive trauma training” and bolstered counseling personnel through the county education office.

“It’s devastating,” Cox said. “I’m from Paradise, so I have [my] heart there as well—I have 11 family members who lost their homes, places of work, grocery stores, restaurants, all of that.

“Unity comes with tragedy,” she added. “This is a horrible event that of course we all wish never happened. Through this all, Butte County is here for all students, and I feel the whole school community has really come together during this time.”