Near one end zone, a DJ booth and speakers blasted out music, a soundtrack for the 90 or so seniors playing games, talking and eating. Near the other end zone, two inflatable water slides offered a respite from the 80-degree heat.
Erik Dimond, 18, who was playing volleyball with friends around noon, had spent many an evening on that field, even before he was old enough to attend El Molino. He would head there as a kid with his family to watch the Lions play the Tigers of Analy High School in the annual Apple Game. Years later, he played outside linebacker and wide receiver for the football team.
But Dimond doesn’t expect to be able to return to his Forestville high school to watch gridiron games as an alumnus. El Molino is slated to consolidate with Analy High in Sebastopol by next fall. The consolidation is the school district board’s chosen remedy for a persistent, multimillion-dollar budget deficit after months of contentious discussion and even a special election failed to advance any fixes that district officials considered viable.
“It is sad,“ Dimond said. Coming back for future Apple Games, he said, ”was something I thought I would get. But now I realize that I won’t.“
El Molino’s class of 2021 had already persevered through multiple evacuations from wildfires and a historic flood before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced them out of their classrooms as juniors. While adjusting to distance- and then hybrid learning this year, the students have also witnessed and participated in their school district’s turbulent budget process, which culminated in the board’s decision in March to eliminate the school.
The 125 seniors who will walk at Thursday’s 6 p.m. graduation ceremony are poised to be the last graduating class from El Molino High, marking the end of a line of alumni stretching back to 1966. The school has been a fixture in Forestville since 1964, when it moved out of its first home, a few trailers on the Analy campus.
“All of us love being here. It’s like a family,” said Chaylee Tensfeldt. Graduating, she said, “feels really bittersweet” in light of the changes coming to the school in the next few months.
Years of challenges
Yasmin Sierra found herself breathing easier toward the end of her time as a student.
“It’s a relief to be over with,” she said. In years past, Sierra said, her classmates had to manage homework after evacuations from wildfire and flooding. She also struggled to stay motivated while taking classes from home.
“I can say, our experience has really helped us to be prepared for the real world,” Sierra said. “We’re ready.”
El Molino closed for a total of 19 days due to emergencies from 2017 through 2021, according to data provided by the Sonoma County Office of Education.
The 2017 firestorm forced five days of closure during the students’ freshman year. The following fire season, air quality issues from more distant wildfires prompted two days of closures.
In early 2019, flooding along the Russian River caused an estimated $155 million in damage in the region and displaced students and staff. The school was closed for three days.
Months later, El Molino families were among those affected by the Kincade fire, which displaced nearly 200,000 people in evacuation orders that stretched through west county to the coast. A week after returning to the classroom, a teacher strike began in the West Sonoma County Union School District. Though school was in session, it ran “on a skeleton crew” until the strike ended, said Principal Matt Dunkle.
“It’s an impressive group of young people to navigate four years of challenges, not to mention international issues that also affect us,” he said, listing the 2017 shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school as an example.
Through it all, the spirit of the small school has endured, Dunkle said, citing the role that staff and faculty’s relationships with students played in ensuring families had the support they needed to get through each crisis, Dunkle said.
“You know your students very well and there’s the level of comfort and confidence that you can have those types of conversations,” he said.
Seniors attested to feeling part of a tight-knit community as they reminisced about their own experiences during the last four years.
“This is our home,” said Kali Holdren, a senior. That’s why, she said, the decision to combine the high schools has affected her classmates deeply even as they prepare to graduate.
Even now, some students still harbor a hope, one shared by others in the El Molino community, that the consolidation will not be completed. They stay up to date with the activities of Keep Our Lions Roaring, the group continuing to fight to preserve El Molino High for future generations.