Recently, I was informed that a little school in Tuolumne County was closing. Sullivan Creek School opened about 20 years back, serving residents in a comfortable little working-class neighborhood east of Sonora. I was selected to be the school’s first principal. This was to be the first new school to open in Tuolumne in decades. A brand new facility on the edge of a mountain meadow. Spic and span and clean as a whistle. All that was needed was kids.
A flagpole had been erected at the edge of the meadow, a few paces from the cedar-sided classroom buildings. From the very first day, all of the students, staff and whoever else was on campus joined to raise the flag, recite the pledge, celebrate victories and, in that meadow, join voices in patriotic song. Thus, a community was born.
Throughout my six years there and beyond my tenure, the school has been a place where the adults mentored students in both academics and in life. Daily, around the flagpole, we celebrated our efforts in spelling bees, essay contests, science fairs and standardized tests. And we collectively mourned when one of our youngsters slipped over an area waterfall and tumbled to his death.
Now, the lumber mill is closing, house prices are dropping, and enrollment — as in over half California’s school districts — is in decline. Tough economic times have hit all communities and the Sullivan Creek School community is not immune.
From time to time, society’s priorities are misshapen by situations or events that we, as members, don’t fully understand. For whatever reason — the War on Terror, the worldwide price of oil, and the collapse of our financial markets (whether the cause is an ethical lapse or simply something cyclical) — our priorities have been battered by circumstances far removed from our communities. Police services, public health, transportation and, of course, schools show the effects.
For our children, it means that ranks of teachers are reduced. Class sizes are growing. Materials and supplies are limited. School sites are shuttered and students are bused elsewhere. In Tuolumne County it means, east of Sonora, the singing voices of children will no longer ring across the Sullivan Creek meadow once the school closes in June.
Really good work was done during the 20-year run of that picturesque little school. Community work. My heart aches when I think that the advantages provided in the past to the neighborhood’s kids will not be as available to the future kids. The community of teachers and support personnel and families will have to un-unite and hopefully reunite in a different venue.
One measure of a resilient and robust society must be how quickly it can find the will necessary to return to its priorities. One day, we will return to the foundations that made our communities strong and underpin our democracy. Among those will be the critical support that keeps both our schools, and the neighborhoods they serve, vital.
East of Sonora, evidence of that societal turn-around will be heralded by the voices of those children again ringing in each school day across the meadow at Sullivan Creek School. It cannot happen soon enough.