Students return to El Molino for what may be the final semester in Forestville

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, April 12, 2021

return to el mo

As consolidation moves forward, money is still flowing in to the ‘Save El Mo’ campaign

Students stepped foot on campus at Analy and El Molino high schools to attend in-person classes for the first time this school year Monday morning, April 12, as the West Sonoma County Union High School District shifts to a hybrid learning model. Superintendent Toni Beal said Laguna High School opened its doors for the hybrid reopening Monday as well.

The first last day of school takes on a new meaning for El Molino seniors especially, after the board’s 3-2 vote on March 10 to merge the two student populations onto the Analy campus in Sebastopol and relocate Laguna students and the district office to the Forestville campus.

The board voted to begin the process to rebrand the consolidated comprehensive high school at its March 16 meeting and in an April 6 letter to the district community, said the new name, mascot and colors have yet to be determined “because we want the students and the community to inform this work.”

But on Monday morning, red balloons, some metallic red stars and baubles, framed the two check-in tents where students lined up to verify their symptom surveys available on a mobile app, have their temperatures scanned and receive their new hybrid learning schedule and wristband indicating their clearance onto school grounds.

Jesse Gonzalez, a senior, said students have a lot to do in order to get into a classroom. “It’s definitely time-consuming, taking away time for our classes, but I mean, we’re here. We’re doing it. We’re all trying to accommodate to the new lifestyle or way we have to do things,” he said. “It’s definitely good to catch up with your friends and people you haven’t seen in a minute.”

Reflecting on this being his last semester at El Molino as he knew it, Gonzalez said the consolidation won’t affect him much. “It will affect my younger siblings, though. I know it might be rough, but everybody has to kind of organize themselves, try to work with what we got,” he said.

Volunteers held welcome back signs along the sidewalk. Leslie McCormick, El Molino Boosters president, said she arranged for snacks and balloons to welcome students back, in addition to floor covering to bring Principal Matt Dunkle’s vision of a red carpet for students to life.

“We’re thrilled to be back. My kids, they thrive on activity, the social aspect but also their athletics. So, all of this, being able to return means a lot to them. I can see a spark in them already,” she said of her daughters, a senior and a sophomore at the high school.

Someone stopped McCormick to hand her a donation and said it was from an elderly neighbor nearby. McCormick said this kind of thing happens all the time.

“On the Save El Molino side of things, when both tax measures did not pass and it was pretty clear we weren’t going to get funding in that way, people literally came to us and were like, ‘Do whatever you can, here’s money. Save that school,’” she said.

Soon after, someone called out, “Good luck, El Mo,” from a passing car.

McCormick said the parents and Boosters members were just out supporting the high schoolers that morning. “But that kind of support you’re seeing, that lady who came up and gave me a check from her neighbor, that all is coming from people who want this school to exist,” she said.

The El Molino Boosters has a special Save El Molino Fund, for “anything and everything to save the high school,” Gillian Hayes told Sonoma West Times & News in early April, as the boosters vice president. So far, the fund had only been used to pay an attorney’s retainer, Hayes said.

Dunkle stationed himself at the same check-in tent as Superintendent Toni Beal, where students stepped onto the red carpet, awaited by a standing hand soap dispenser.

“It’s a lot of fun to have everybody back and go through because it truly is like the first day of school in August, just a little more complicated,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s any better feeling than to see students on campus.”

In the mix are ninth graders on school grounds for the first time, learning where their classrooms are, and teachers adapting to simultaneously teaching about 15 students in-person and students continuing distance learning, through a camera on a tripod in the classroom, according to Dunkle.

The principal said the school plans to find ways to give the class of 2021 their senior experiences, like a modified prom of some kind, since the seniors missed traditional prom as juniors and a typical prom won’t be possible this spring in the pandemic, either.

The prospect that these are the final months at the Forestville campus due to district consolidation plans brings mixed emotions of excitement welcoming students back “and then that sadness does creep in if you think about it,” Dunkle said. “So, you try to just embrace the moment and enjoy the students while they’re here and try to make it the best opportunity for all.”

Dunkle did not say whether he applied for the consolidated school’s principal position. According to the April 14 school board agenda, director of human resources Mia Del Prete will announce the finalist who accepted the position and the board will consider approving the employment contract to take effect the first of July.

Meanwhile, Beal said in a March 16 interview that Dunkle and Analy Principal Shauna Ferdinandson have rights as longtime district employees that include the possibility of reassignment to another district position, like vice principal, or priority in the hiring process for a teacher.

“My role moving forward is one that’s going to be determined. I may find myself in a position in this district, but at this point, I’m just looking at the opportunities that are available,” Dunkle said. “Sometimes you get those crossroads in life and you make the most of them.”

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at