West County High School students start the year

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, August 12, 2021

west county high school

The first day of school at the new consolidated high school began with a rally at the football field.

It couldn’t be an ordinary first day back to school at West County High School in Sebastopol, on Thursday, Aug. 12. Teenagers of the new consolidated school milled about and threw their arms around friends, and a staff person offered blue surgical masks as they headed to the outdoor stadium for a rally.

Cars crawled along the drop-off lane.

According to Superintendent Toni Beal, roughly 1,600 are currently enrolled at West County High, where former Analy and El Molino students will now study side by side. Laguna High School students are starting the year at the former El Molino High School campus in Forestville.

How are students feeling about being back?

The students, some of who headed into distance learning from eighth grade the spring of 2020 to arrive this August as sophomores, had never stepped foot on the high school campus. It’s been a year and a half spent largely in isolation, save for students returning to hybrid classes this past spring.

Kaylie Nuth is one such 10th grader who hadn’t had the in-person high school experience until now.

“It’s good to meet new people,” she said, though she said she does not look forward to getting lost on campus. “I feel like there’s a lot of people, and trying to walk and get places, it’s kind of stressful,” Nuth said.  Nuth said her first day was going well, though.

Seniors Kylie Mattos and Aidan Stanley sat on a bench nearby, without a first period class scheduled to attend that day.

“I’m feeling pretty excited to be back in person, but I think I benefited a lot from distance learning and online learning,” Mattos said.

She continued, “I just felt like I did school a lot better and I got better grades,” sharing that she didn’t think she would do as well starting classes in-person, even though she looked forward to it. “I got to work on my own schedule, I got more sleep being at home and I felt a lot more comfortable being in my own room doing all my work.”

Stanley said, “I definitely think there’s better learning experiences to be actually at school, but the main thing I’m thinking about is the whole reason we got out of school is because we started wearing masks. And we have to wear them again, so why don’t we just keep with the program?”

He voiced his wish that a hybrid model remained an option instead of a total switch to full-time in-person learning.

Not everyone is looking back nostalgically at this last year of online learning. Last week, during registration and orientation, a pair of sophomore cheerleaders shared their thoughts returning to a more traditional school experience. Both attended Analy for their first year, mostly online, of course.

“I feel like it’s going to be different but better,” said Desirée McKenzie.

Wilder Larrain pitched in, “I mean, especially being isolated from all your friends and teachers, it was a hard time. I know, academically-”

“And socially,” McKenzie added.

“And yeah, mentally and physically, there were some struggles. But I think once this year starts to build up and continue through, we’ll have an easier time, I would say, focusing but also just reconnecting and reuniting with people new and old,” Larrain finished.

It’s not just seeing people students missed over the summer, it’s also “I haven’t seen you in a year and a half,” in some cases, McKenzie pointed out. “I’m looking forward to seeing all the people I haven’t seen in a long time. And then cheer, I’m definitely looking forward to cheerleading.”

“I think I’m mostly looking forward to seeing my teachers in person, and I know for a fact that when I came back last year in person, safely, and even only for a few days, my grades went up completely,” Larrain said.

She continued, “And I think a lot of people were affected, especially, by the pandemic, mentally because you couldn’t focus. You’d be isolated from all these people you care about and really, you wouldn’t know if they would survive this.”

McKenzie voiced her approval of the funding to offer students more sports options now that Analy and El Molino have merged.

“It’s cool we have a new school,” she said.

The view from the top

In an email to Soconews on August 11, Superintendent Toni Beal said the school district has been working nonstop to merge Analy and El Molino high schools into the West County High School, “Thanks to the hard work of our custodial, maintenance, operations and technology teams, and the collaboration between teaching and administrative staff from both sites, we are ready for students tomorrow morning.”

According to Beal, 1,611 youth are currently enrolled at West County High School, and the district is excited for Aug. 12 to welcome them.

This August marks the debut of the education hub itself, rising from the ashes of the consolidation of Analy and El Molino high schools, schools that have been rivals for decades. The school at Analy High School’s former site is operating under West County High School as a bridge name until the renaming process concludes.

Early school identification cards were mistakenly printed with an incorrect spelling of the school name, caught on the first day of student orientations. “This mistake was quickly corrected and students who received ID cards with the misspelled school name will receive updated cards during their first period class tomorrow,” Beal said.

Beal has said a student committee will restart the naming process when school begins, to offer a recommendation the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD)’s board of trustees can consider on whether to rename and if so, what the new name, mascot and colors shall be.

On campus on opening day for the first day of school, campus supervisor David Cary observed, “It’s busy and a little bit busier than what a normal school year would be, but we planned a lot to handle the increased number of students on campus and we’ve got a lot more teachers. It’s a little bit more crowded, but so far I’d say things are going pretty well.”

COVID still looms

There are concerns however. Registration volunteer Roger Benz praised school staff for doing the best they could to keep students safe and prepare for what challenges may lie ahead.

He said he feels a little anxious sending his son back for his senior year, but more confident knowing his son is vaccinated. A positive impact of the isolation is that his son is more outgoing and eager to connect than before the pandemic, Benz said.

“He’s been home for about a year and a half now, and with all the changes with the Delta variant coming and whatnot, it’s a little nerve-wracking, but at the same time, I think there’s so much benefit to having him out and interacting with other people that the small risk that he does face. I think it’s worth it,” he said.

COVID-19 regulations will be in place when school starts, such as keeping masks on indoors and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent directive that teachers and staff must get vaccinated or get tested for the virus weekly. More information on new COVID-19-related rules and guidance for schools is available here, from the Sonoma County Office of Education and some members of the county’s health department.

Onward and upward

COVID or no COVID — and despite protests from supporters of keeping Analy and El Molino separate — consolidation is moving relentlessly forward, especially now that students are actually together on one campus.

Beal spoke to the history made at this moment.

“We all chose education as our careers because we love working with students. Being on Zoom all last year did not allow for the personal connections that mean so much to us as teachers and human beings,” she said. “We are eager to see our students, to connect, and to teach and learn together.”

Shauna Ferdinandson, the former principal of Analy, is now the principal of West County High School, which is located on the former Analy Campus.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org