After Wildfires, Teachers Juggling Own Emotions and Students' Needs
Roseland Middle School students find out where to go in their new school. They are sharing space with the district's elementary school. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)
Inside the Roseland School District this week, staff are creating space for storytelling and healing with their students.
There is simply a lot of relief in being back in school. Seventh-grader Angel Duarte was beaming, even though he's now sharing a campus with elementary school kids because his school campus, Roseland Collegiate Prep (RCP), suffered extensive fire damage. More than 400 students have been relocated throughout the mostly Latino district.
"I'm OK, I guess," Angel said. "It was really sad watching the fire and what it did. We live near Mark West, near those apartments."
Angel and his family evacuated that night and were out of their home for several days.
"We went back to our house but it was really smoky, and there was no gas or power," he said. The family has now returned home and Angel says things are getting back to normal, though he said it's still pretty smoky. "I'm just glad it's intact," he said.
His biggest worry now is getting to school. He used to take the city bus to RCP. Today, his mom had to drive him. He said he needs to sort this out. "Hopefully, I just take the school bus or the city bus because my mom has to work."
Angel was part of a happily buzzing throng of teachers and students gathered outside Roseland Elementary. There were welcome-back signs and a lot of hugs -- and enthusiastic greetings for the 195 middle schoolers who are now sharing this campus with about 600 elementary students. There were also cautions for those middle schoolers at a before-school assembly.
"Same rules as RCP, y’all," Brandy Raymond, RCP's assistant principal, reminded her students in a before-school assembly. "No gum, no cellphones. And I’d like the language that we use to be respectful and make sure that we are setting good examples for those around us. So make sure you check it in your head before you speak it with your mouth."
There are about 3,000 students in the district, 92 percent of them Latino and 96 percent on free and reduced lunch. The district prioritizes building relationships with their families. When students found out the home of their high school math teacher, Anna Solano, burned in Coffey Park, she was overwhelmed by their response.
"The kids have offered me apartments. They have offered me money, food, they send me their address," Solano said. She worries about two students from her school who lost homes. "They were renters, no insurance."
Wendy Momsen is an eighth-grade teacher at the middle school who has moved into a makeshift classroom with her 30 students.
"I talked with some of my kids already and they said, 'I’m so happy to be back at school!' And I said, 'Me too,'" Momsen said.
Momsen's home burned in the Fountaingrove neighborhood. She's one of 200 teachers in the Sonoma County district who lost their homes and who must juggle putting their own lives back together with school duties.
After Wildfires, Teachers Juggling Own Emotions and Students’ Needs
"I’m so tired of shopping for things, I can’t even tell you," Momsen said. "Towels and sheets ... and we’re kind of doing it military fashion -- 'This mattress looks good, we’ll take three!' Luckily, my fiancé is good with that. With his military background, he used to move every couple years, so he knows how to get it done."
Momsen and fellow teachers met last week to try to gather their emotions before returning to school this week. There were tears and hugs and people offering each other support. Momsen thinks there is going to be some improvising going on at first.
"We all need to give each other a little grace because there’s going to be times when we need it," she said.
Momsen hasn’t been back to her home yet to see if anything is left.
"I can’t even wrap my mind around ... like where was I? Like what were we doing in social studies? I don’t exactly remember. I don’t think there’s going to be ton of formal learning. It’s going to be a lot of life lessons. Learning to appreciate what we have," Momsen said.
Roseland Elementary School Principal Michelle Leisen is dealing with survivor's guilt. Leisen escaped with her family from her Wikiup neighborhood.
"It was scary. I ran down to my parents' home. The hill was on fire above their house," Leisen said. "Up till then, I had been evacuating and at that point I said, 'OK, I think I’m fleeing.' "
Leisen's family made it out. But she quickly learned one of her neighbors, 27-year-old Christina Hansen, did not. Hansen died in the fire.
"We called everyone, but there are always things like, I should have done this or I could have done more," said Leisen, in tears. "And because you’re safe, you don’t know how to process the guilt involved for people who are not safe."
The joy of this week has simply been bringing this family of educators and students back together. Even if there is a little chaos. When asked what school will be like in this new school for the next few months, seventh-grader Sophia Martinelli shrugged.
"I don’t really know. We’re just coming back to school after two weeks from the fire. It feels good to be back at school because it was really boring sitting at home," she said.