A colorful painting and mosaic bench sit next to supplies and tools July 23 inside the Paradise Ridge Elementary School in Paradise. (Matt Bates — Enterprise-Record)
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CHICO — The Camp Fire burned homes, shops, restaurants, parks — many treasured pieces of an old mining town. It also left thousands of children displaced from their schools — at least from their campuses or even their teachers and peers.

For the Paradise Unified School District, the fire was devastating. It should have forced the district to shut its doors, Superintendent Michelle John said — but today, the district is still on the ridge, one year later.

“We have come very, very far since Nov. 8,” John said.

Enrollment in Paradise Unified School District is at 1,770 or 51% of last year’s total, John said. She said that as the projected total had been expected to be only 31%, this is a much better number of students than the district hoped for.

Many of the students who didn’t opt to enroll in Paradise entered the Chico Unified School District, where an overall enrollment increase was seen at all grade levels, according to superintendent Kelly Staley.

The cooperation between the two districts has been essential to keeping PUSD alive, John said.

“Without the help from Chico and many others, we would have had to close our doors,” she said.

Meeting student needs

After the fire, the greatest concern for educators and the two districts were meeting the ongoing educational goals of each student. Losing many school days deeply impacted Paradise students, particularly after being forced to move their schools into empty buildings in Chico — like Paradise Intermediate School did, when it moved into the former Orchard Supply Hardware building for the spring semester.

CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley said she feels that, “all things considered, the district handled the weight of Paradise’s displaced students very well” last semester and into this fall.

“From a logistic perspective, we rose … to meet the needs of staff and students,” she said. “But there are still many who are suffering … they need to know when they’re at school that they have support and resources.”

The additional number of students which CUSD absorbed began at around 350, and is now at around 120 additional students at all grade levels.

The increase in students can be “really hard on people,” Staley said, and also led to a need for additional staff members at some schools. Different schools were hit harder than others, such as at John A. McManus Elementary, where at least three staff members lost their homes.

What it takes, she said, is being aware of individual situations and needs, “making sure we know our students, being aware of change — or knowing what it is they need.”

Experiences and needs of students varied between grades.

“In high school, they can see a light at the end of the tunnel … just three or four years and then they’re out,” she said. “So they really stuck together right after the Camp Fire, with a lot of students coming to me concerned about still passing their (required) classes.”

Younger students had a harder time adjusting — Staley said she saw parents working to make sure their children felt welcome, as well as staff.

Although admitting that students sometimes have “complete meltdowns,” Staley said staff have worked hard to make children feel welcome while displaced.

“Right after, we had fabulous leaders pulling people together. There are times when kids are sad or disengaged, but then come other times when they’re smiling.”

She said it helped seeing other students reaching out to others who survived the fire with welcome cards and support.

It also meant a lot when over 150 of CUSD families were also affected, with over 70 staff members losing their homes.

“The resilience is still so shocking to me,” John said. “Especially parents who are doing it for their kids.”

CUSD is supportive of whatever decisions parents ultimately make about where to place their children, Staley said, even if that means more parents are concerned about continuing to bus their young child for hours a day to school.

“Many did realize their kids missed their friends, their teachers … we’re just trying to be understanding of individual needs,” she said. And bussing is very expensive — over 80% of students are being transported by bus which Staley said makes costs “astronomical.”

Student life after fire

Combining schools has worked for now, pushing together Paradise Junior and senior high schools and creating Paradise Ridge Elementary, comprised of the three elementary schools in Paradise before the fire. Cedar View Elementary in Magalia was the only campus not touched by fire.

The major issues facing the district this fall are power outages by PG&E, PUSD board member Melissa Crick said. The district has been paying for power generators that are valued around $6 million and is struggling to figure out what to do if power outages continue.

Minimizing loss of class time for students is also a great concern. In previous years, the district would use three “snow days,” which are now renamed “emergency use days.” Going over this limit due to power outages requires the district to apply for a waiver in order to meet the quote for minimum instruction days. PUSD has already gone over the maximum allotted number of days this year.

It’s especially important not to miss more class after the difficulties of lost weeks in December 2018 and spring 2019, Crick said.

“We had a lot to overcome last spring,” she said.

Crick and John also both agreed that the district has had to devote more time to providing for students’ mental health and wellness as they have returned to classes on the ridge.

While some are happy to be back with friends, it’s taken a lot of work with individual students and parents to begin to “get back to normal,” John said.

“We are here to have parents’ questions and concerns alleviated … no parent is ever ‘bugging’ us,” she said.

Students weigh options

Some students are now committed to staying in Chico, in the district or in schools that have moved to the city for now, like Paradise Adventist Academy. Others are just in Chico temporarily, and hope to be back on the ridge within the next two years.

“We’ve heard that they desperately want to be in their schools with their peers, their friends — with the understanding of what they’re going through,” Michelle John said.

Thankfully, the debris removal effort is nearly complete, and a drive up or down the Skyway should only take about 20 minutes again. The next challenge to address will be traffic from the new concrete shipments for homes that are now being built, she said.

For now, major costs are involved in bussing students up and down the ridge, Crick said.

But some families feel it’s worth it, even if they could eventually stay with the Chico district or move away, Staley said. Either way, the Paradise district will support parents’ decisions for their children with the help of Chico’s staff.

“I can’t begin to list the things Chico Unified (School District) has done for us,” John said.

“As a board member and a mom, I can’t say enough, or without crying,” Crick said.

Remembrance ceremonies

CUSD will join PUSD at 11:08 a.m. today for an 85-second moment of silence in remembrance of the 85 who died in the Camp Fire. This event takes place at the different schools around the districts.

Several other schools held additional ceremonies, like the planting of three trees at McManus to commemorate the three homes of staffers that were destroyed in the fire.

This article has been updated with the Michelle John’s correct name.

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