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West Sonoma County District wants to reject federal funds to help El Molino High

Kaitlyn McClintock, right, and other students make their way to their classes after the lunch period at El Molino High School on Tuesday.

Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 10:41 p.m.

The West Sonoma County School District is considering rejecting a slice of federal funds in an effort to free El Molino High School from what officials said is an unfair designation as a struggling campus.

El Molino High School is in Year 2 of Program Improvement sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law, a label that allows students to freely transfer.

That movement has exacerbated an ongoing issue of declining enrollment that has seen El Molino's student population fall from a high of 1,200 in 1998-99 to 672 this year.

Saying no to $135,000 to $150,000 in funds earmarked for socioeconomically disadvantaged students would free El Molino of any penalties under the controversial law.

“It would relieve us from the Program Improvement sanctions immediately, instantly,” West Sonoma County School District Superintendent Keller McDonald said. “I believe it's important enough to have a conversation with the board to find those funds within the district budget.”

Despite a state academic performance index score of 790, 10 shy of the state goal of 800, El Molino is under Year 2 sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law for failing to have all students subgroups meet academic standards.

That designation allows students to freely transfer across the district to Analy High School despite the fact that this year Analy failed to meet federal benchmarks. Analy met only 10 of 14 targets but will not fall into Program Improvement because it does not receive Title I funds.

While El Molino, a four-time California Distinguished School has gotten dramatically smaller, Analy's enrollment has remained steady and is currently at 1,367.

In 2011-12, about 26 freshmen transferered from El Molino to Analy. One of those students cited Program Improvement as the official reason. This year, 72students made the same move, 58 of whom cited federal sanctions.

We are taking the bull by the horns,” McDonald said. “All the positive energy in this room is a good .”

The idea was floated at a town hall meeting in El Molino's library Tuesday night where hundreds of people packed in, some speaking passionately about the Forestville campus' need to sell itself to a wider community.

“There's an elephant sitting in this room that people want to duck,” said Jim Walton, whose two sons attended El Molino and who spearheaded the district's recent successful campaign to renew a parcel tax. “There's a huge discrepancy in enrollment I believe the school board should address ... somebody needs to start putting some policies in place to stop this migration.”

The message of what El Molino offers is getting lost in community discussions, parents and community members said.

“El Molino is producing a lot of great kids who go out in the world,” said Ed Smith, president of the Russian River Rotary Club. “We are very interested in helping out in different ways. We are dedicated to helping out this school.

Outreach to prospective families cannot start with eighth-graders, said Max Broome, a Forestville School Board member who said his daughter will be a freshman at El Molino in five years.

The whole thing starts early. Where kids go to school starts in pre-school. It's pretty crazy,” Broome said. “Why do you live here? Why did you move here? So you could send your kids somewhere else?”

Closure of El Molino is not an option nor is consolidating the two campuses, officials said Tuesday.

“Closing El Molino is not on the table and will not be on the table,” said School Board President Kelly Noe. That will not be part of the discussion -- closing El Molino High School.”

Throughout the two-hour meeting, parents, students and alumni passionatelypraised El Molino saying the small campus offers a full-offering of academics, diverse student body and extracurricular activities within a small learning community.

The loss of students isn't unique to El Molino. Districts across Sonoma County are dealing with changing demographics and increased student choice which has pushed districts and schools to compete for students and the state funding that comes with them.

The number of 8th-graders in the seven feeder districts which traditinonaly send students to El Molino has fallen by 16 percent since 1998-99, compared with a 7 percent decline among the three districts that traditionally send freshmen to Analy.

You can reach Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or Kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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