This year, it really took a village
One year after the fires, focus is on community at Dunbar School
Exactly one year to the date that last year’s fires raged through Dunbar Elementary School, burning the Kindergarten play structure, the teaching garden, and the school’s beloved Haver stage to the ground, the school campus was abuzz with children painting wooden stars in bright colors, called Stars of Hope. Part of a national program, the hundreds of stars decorated by Dunbar’s students are now part of a growing “pay it forward” service movement bringing messages of hope to other victims of disasters around the world. Started after the 9/11 attacks, Stars of Hope have been hung in Japanese communities affected by the 2011 tsunami, in Breezy Point, New York, for survivors of Hurricane Sandy, in Greensburg, Texas, after an EF-5 tornado leveled the town, and many more. Shortly after the October 2017 fires, the wooden stars appeared in Glen Ellen and around Sonoma County.
“The simple act of painting a wooden star and sending it on to us showed us we are loved,” said Renea Magnani, a third-grade teacher at Dunbar. “That love helped propel us forward. That is what today was about. Catering that love to send forward to another community. Connecting us all. It was a beautiful day and brought out the best in all of us.”
“The focus is on community today,” said school Principal Jillian Beall as she walked the campus on Oct. 8. Students began the day with a group assembly focused on community and defining what that meant to the students.
That focus is fitting for the anniversary, as over the course of the last year, the Glen Ellen community, despite it’s own losses, has rallied to support its local elementary school. Five Dunbar families lost their homes in the October 2017 fires.
Today, the Kindergarten play structure has been replaced with a brand new one, the teaching garden has new garden boxes awaiting soil and seeds, and a new Haver stage was finished just in time to host the school’s annual Melodrama play this past May, a Dunbar tradition for more than 25 years.
Although some replacement funding came from insurance and from the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, there was still a shortfall, especially in the case of the stage and the garden. The Dunbar School PTO, community groups like the Rotary Club of Glen Ellen-Kenwood, Boy Scout Troop #222, and businesses like Landmark Winery and Lasseter Family Winery, stepped up with donations and fundraising efforts. Volunteers, parents and other community members provided the sweat equity, especially in the case of Haver Stage, to make its replacement a reality in time for the school play and the fifth grade class “promotion” graduation ceremony, also held on the outside stage under the oaks. The garden is still a work in progress, said Beall, “but we’ll get there.”
“[The fire] allowed me to see the power of community. Often, it takes a long time in a new position to get to feel a sense of community. I feel lucky to have gotten to see that so quickly,” she said.
Beall, who lives with her husband and two young children in Rincon Valley, was hired as the school’s new principal less than two months before the fires broke out. While her family evacuated with relatives on the north coast, Beall and her husband returned to help with evacuation efforts at Sonoma Valley High School.
Dunbar was the only school site in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) with fire-related damage. To prepare for reopening, all SVUSD schools were cleaned and power washed and had HVAC filters replaced. In addition, school staff received training on how to address the social and emotional needs of students. It was two weeks and one day before school was able to resume at Dunbar.
Thankfully, all of Dunbar’s students returned after the fires, said Beall.
Families were greeted back to school with an open house the night before, and on the first day of school, Beall and the Dunbar Dolphin mascot rode the school bus with the kids.
Beall and her staff made sure the first day of school was a celebratory one, a welcome home, of sorts. Then parents, staff, and other volunteers got busy putting on Dunbar’s annual Halloween Carnival on Oct. 28.
The families who needed extra support were connected to available resources. The school library was turned into a “peace room,” a quiet space for art and reflection, with extra counselors made available to anyone who needed to talk with someone.
A year later, while the “peace room” no longer seems as necessary, Beall is hoping to bring a counselor back to campus for kids and staff. “In our trauma-informed training, we’ve learned that trauma symptoms often increase on the anniversary of the traumatic event,” she said.
Recovering and transformingDunbar has spent the last year recovering, but also transforming under Beall’s new leadership, with a series of new programs Beall had hoped to roll out before the fires. The AVID program, which Beall had experience teaching during her time at Roseland Collegiate Prep Middle-High School, is a national college and career readiness system. The focus is to give students as many opportunities as possible as they progress through life, said Beall. There is a focus on connecting real life situations to what they learn in the classroom. There is practice of study skills, like organizing an agenda or keeping a binder, and social skills, like greeting and welcoming – skills they can utilize in middle school, high school and take with them the rest of their lives. Each class, from K to 5, has adopted a college. Every Wednesday, students (who are called “scholars”) wear that college’s shirt and students excelling in the four focuses – writing, inquiry, collaboration, reading – are recognized during in a school-wide assembly.
Dunbar is the first school in SVUSD to adopt the AVID program at the elementary school level. Altimira Middle School offers an AVID elective program.
In line with the concept of “dress for success” promoted by AVID, Dunbar has also rolled out a new optional “professional dress” uniform this year of collared shirts and khaki or navy bottoms. Beall said the response has been positive, with kids taking pride in getting dressed up for school and parents finding it easier to get their kids ready for school in the morning.
Another new program this year at Dunbar is the addition of a piano lab, with support from Keys of Inspiration, a music intervention program focused on giving students of all backgrounds a chance to experience the power of music by encouraging piano performance as a means of social development.
Dunbar has an enrollment of 213 K through fifth graders, and is one of five elementary schools (not including charter schools) in SVUSD. With changes in the number of families living in the Glen Ellen area, the attendance boundaries of Dunbar have been pushed all the way down into the Springs area. Sixty-seven percent of the student body is Hispanic or Latino, according to the state’s Department of Education enrollment statistics. Almost 60 percent of students are classified as English Language Learners.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.