Sonora Elementary rising from ashes

Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat

One fifth-grade class on Wednesday read the story of the phoenix, a mythological bird rising from the ashes to be more beautiful than before - a story akin to the Sonora Elementary School community after a Nov. 23 fire that destroyed most of the contents of 15 classrooms.

A 17-year-old former student has been arrested on suspicion of starting the fire and may face trial as an adult, according to the Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office. But the students and the community around Sonora Elementary aren't focused on that, say the teachers.

They are focused on the recovery.

Sally McClellan read with her fifth-grade class that was displaced by the fire the story of the phoenix - a bird that dies in a pile of ashes and rises again, even more powerful and beautiful. She said this was an obvious parallel with what the school has faced with the fire.

On Monday - a preparation day given to teachers who were displaced by the fire - the sixth- through eighth-grade teachers whose classrooms were damaged mostly by smoke got bad news. The vast majority of things in the classes would not be salvageable.

McClellan's classroom was even worse off, being directly burned, and she was still very tense about it on Monday, she said.

That morning, she had been stressed further by getting a last minute room change. She had been originally planned for the Title 1 room, normally used for additional reading and math support. That room already has been converted to a two-class classroom and would have been a three-class classroom with her kids, which was deemed not doable on Monday.

Her class is now in a former multi-function room for PM Club and indoor physical education on rainy days. Other creative classroom conversions include the school library, a science laboratory and a conference room.

All classes were able to remain on campus - a move that teachers, administrators and students have all been grateful for.

The support McClellan received from everyone at the school that day, including numerous volunteers, lifted her mood.

"It totally turned my day around," she said. "And it just doesn't stop coming."

Support Sonora School, the school's parent organization, and the broad community support is mentioned by every teacher and administrator when asked about the fire recovery.

SSS has and will continue to purchase and deliver a lunch and morning snacks to every staff member this week.

The group organized a school supply drive over the Thanksgiving break, compiling 200 pencil bags and binders of supplies which the students are using now.

On Tuesday, teachers realized they needed pencil sharpeners and SSS members bought them and got them to school on Wednesday, according to third-grade teacher Sharon Gustafson.

Gustafson, the school's longest serving teacher, said "we've always been a team, but it's never quite been tested like this."

She also knows parents who worked every day of their Thanksgiving break for the school.

"I just can't say enough about the parents and the community," she said.

There have been too many donors to count, teachers and recovery volunteers say, noting that they will be recognized around town and given supplies or books on the spot.

Jamestown, Tenaya and Twain Harte elementary schools have donated hundreds of books, as well as parent organizations from other school districts and individual book drives.

Two offers have been made by businesses to replace teacher libraries entirely and are being worked out. The books being replaced are mostly novels for the students' "accelerated reading" program.

Numerous monetary donations also have been made to SSS's fire recovery fund, which has now topped $10,000.

The only general items still requested by SSS are earbuds and styluses for iPads.

Donors are generally directed toward the displaced teachers' wishlists, which will be updated as needed at

The Union Democrat
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