Paradise educators work to get kids back in school

They can’t dwell on what the fire has taken from them, or the losses still to come.

So they focus on Dec. 3: The day people responsible for the Paradise Unified School District want school to be back in session.

“What will it look like? We don’t know,” said Kindra Britt, a public information officer with the Placer County Office of Education and one of many from outside Butte County who have joined the recovery effort. “People are running on fumes — they’re running on less than fumes. It gives them a lot of hope to know there will be a date, that on Dec. 3 something will happen.”

When that day arrives, it will have been 25 days since Nov. 8, the day the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise and neighboring communities, claiming at least 84 lives and consuming more than 18,000 buildings. The wildfire, the deadliest in California history, either destroyed or badly damaged all nine campuses in Paradise Unified along with six charter schools. At latest count, more than 400 people were still missing.

Since early last week, administrators, teachers and staff have been working out of makeshift offices in the city of Chico. Their first order of business has been locating the families of the more than 3,500 Paradise Unified students to confirm that they survived the fire, find out if they lost their homes and get a sense of their plans going forward. As of Wednesday, they’d reached nearly 90 percent of the district’s students and none have been reported among the dead, said Butte County Superintendent Tim Taylor. But no one can be certain how many students will actually show up when classes resume, or where.

The students worrying officials the most are those who were already marginalized and living a transient existence, said Dena Kapsalis, principal of Honey Run Academy, a community day school that was destroyed in the fire.

“I am personally aware of dozens and dozens of students who are couch surfers, runaways or otherwise displaced,” Kapsalis said. “Those kiddos are very, very hard to find.”

Marc Kessler, a science teacher at the 600-student Paradise Intermediate School, said he and other teachers and administrators have been able to confirm that 90 percent of that school’s students lost their homes. Families are living in hotels, trailers, tents, he said.

Kevin Moretti, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association, described the effort as “organized chaos.”

As of now, he said, 150 students from Paradise have enrolled in Chico schools and are expected to start school when classes resume. These and other displaced students are covered under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a 1987 federal law that, among other things, allows students who are homeless to enroll in school without having to show proof of residency or immunization records.

But Chico Unified can’t handle everyone. So, Taylor and other officials have spent much of their time this week scouring Chico and the surrounding area for classroom space. Taylor said Paradise Unified in the immediate term will be a “hopscotch” of classrooms housed in portables and vacant commercial buildings. He said they are close to securing two large vacated retail stores that can be converted into classrooms.

Making sure those students who return end up together is a top priority, Taylor said. He envisions a school community of portable classrooms situated somewhere in the county and has made a nationwide plea for donations of portables.

“We have to do whatever we can to get kids in classrooms with teachers they had before,” Taylor said. “The best way to control some of the trauma and sadness is to get kids back with their teachers.”

Victims teaching victims

Taylor, along with others, is also worried about “victims teaching victims” when teachers return to classrooms. He talks about the need for mental health “strike teams” that can be on hand for teachers who need emotional support.

Moretti said 250 members of the California Teachers Association lost homes in the fire, and has asked members of the Chico Teachers Association to offer extra rooms in their homes to their fellow teachers from Paradise.

Kessler said the union is proposing a team teaching approach once school starts again so “teachers can meet the emotional needs of individual students and be a support for each other.”

One thing teachers won’t have to worry about is their paychecks, as Taylor expects the state to waive Paradise Unified’s attendance requirements for up to two years. California schools are funded based on their average daily attendance (ADA). Without a waiver, the district would be facing a crippling funding cut corresponding with the attendance drop and be forced to lay off many teachers and staff.

“I told (State Superintendent Tom) Torlakson that there would be hell to pay if the ADA money wasn’t provided,” Taylor said. “I don’t have many lawyers, but I do have rednecks who will drive down to Sacramento in their tractors.”

Additionally, officials with the California Department of Education, the Office of Emergency Services and Gov. Jerry Brown’s office are preparing an executive order providing more waivers to the state’s education and building codes that will help Butte and other counties to get students and teachers back to school as quickly as possible, according to state sources.

Charters plot their course

Simultaneous with the efforts by Butte County and Paradise Unified officials, California’s charter school community has rallied around the six charter schools in Paradise that saw their campuses either destroyed or badly damaged in the fire. The schools serve more than 800 students in and around Paradise.

On Tuesday, a team of charter operators and representatives from the California Charter Schools Association met in Chico with Paradise Unified and Butte County officials to collaborate on a plan for the coming weeks and months. Like their counterparts in Paradise Unified, charter officials are scrambling to make contact with their students and find places to school them. Although the search for facilities is a struggle, it’s something charters have plenty of experience with, said Caity Heim, a spokeswoman for the charter schools’ association.

“We’re used to getting scrappy, rolling up our sleeves and finding suitable locations,” Heim said. “It’s very common for charter schools to take over abandoned churches, malls, even buildings in office parks.”

One of the schools, CORE Butte Paradise Center, already has a location in Chico thanks to a new campus that is near completion. The charter schools are also targeting Dec. 3 as their re-opening date, but realistically it might not be until January, Heim said.

“Regardless, we will have some sort of convening on Dec. 3,” she said. “Given how traumatic the experience has been for the children and families, it’s really good to have everyone come together — especially during the holiday season.”

A flood of support

Outside support has poured in to the point where it is overwhelming Taylor and his colleagues.

“Up here we’re used to spaghetti feeds and fun runs,” he said. “We need help just trying to manage it all.”

Among the more high-profile donors is Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. It has started the Sierra Nevada Camp Fire Relief Fund with a $100,000 contribution. It plans to raise more funds by brewing “Resilience Butte County Proud IPA” on Nov. 27 — #Giving Tuesday — and releasing it on draught and in cans in January, said Robin Gregory, the company’s spokeswoman. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to fire relief for victims of the Camp Fire, she said.

As of Tuesday, 300 breweries across the country had accepted Sierra Nevada’s invitation to help brew the beer and the brewery’s hops and malt distributors have agreed to donate much of the ingredients, Gregory said. The brewery also teamed up with the Town of Paradise, Chico State, local school districts and World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit started by celebrity chef Jose Andres, to serve 15,000 meals to survivors of the Camp Fire on Thanksgiving Day. Heim of the charter schools’ association said the efforts of Sierra Nevada served as inspiration to their group gathered in Chico.

“We wanted a motto for our group and we found it,” Heim said, referring to the new-found rallying cry they use to close meetings. “We now have our daily ‘resilience’ calls.”

This article is published in partnership with EdSource. EdSource Editor-At-Large John Fensterwald contributed.

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