What will happen to El Molino?

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO EL MOLINO? - El Molino principal Matt Dunkle with Superintendent Toni Beal in happier times, before a change in intradistrict transfer policy threatened El Molino’s fragile enrollment gains.

High school district discovers that its policy of discouraging intradistrict transfers violates state education code

The West Sonoma County Union High School District board meeting took a dramatic turn last week when the district’s attorney Elizabeth Mori announced that the district’s long-standing practice of discouraging intradistrict transfers was in violation of the State of California’s open enrollment policy.

“The current policy is not legal,” Mori said, noting that it violates the state education code. Her announcement shocked the room, overturning years of district practice and wringing a heart-wrenching speech from Matt Dunkle, the Principal of El Molino, who saw it as yet another setback for the struggling high school.

The ins and outs of who’s in and who’s out

An intradistrict transfer happens when parents seek to enroll their student at a school that is within their district, but outside of their “designated attendance area” — for example, when parents from Forestville seek to enroll their student at Analy rather than El Molino or when parents from Sebastopol seek to enroll their student at El Molino rather than Analy. (An interdistrict transfer, in contrast, happens when a student transfers from a different school district, say from Windsor or Santa Rosa, to WSCUHSD.)

According to the California Department of Education website, “California Education Code Section 35160.5(b) permits parents to indicate a preference for the school which their child will attend, irrespective of the child’s place of residence within the district, and requires the district to honor this parental preference if the school has sufficient capacity without displacing other currently enrolled students.” Moreover, the statute continues, all intradistrict transfers are supposed to be accepted before interdistrict (or out-of-district) transfer students are enrolled.

That’s not how it’s been working at West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD), where, according to the intradistrict transfer form, families wishing to transfer their student have had to prove that their student was a victim of bullying (or violent crime) at their existing school; that the family was moving into the correct attendance area; or that student or family had a verifiable hardship (not related to curriculum preference) which required a change of schools.

Like most districts, WSCUHSD assigns its students to different high schools based on their elementary school attendance areas. Students living in the Gravenstein Union School District, Sebastopol Union School District and Twin Hills Union School District attendance areas attend Analy High School, while students living in elementary school districts further west attend El Molino. (Those districts include Forestville Union School District, Fort Ross School District, Guerneville School District, Harmony Union School District, Monte Rio Union School District, Montgomery School District and Oak Grove Union School District attendance areas.) In between these two attendance areas is a so-called “Choice Area,” where students have a choice to go to either high school.

In fact, as the board has just learned, all students in the district have a choice of which high school to attend, especially since both Analy and El Molino are operating under capacity. Analy, which has a capacity of 1,350 students, currently has 1,100 students; El Molino, which has a capacity of 1,100 students, only has 570 students.  

By the numbers

Despite its restrictive intradistrict transfer policy, a couple of dozen students manage to do intradistrict transfers each year. In the 2016-17 school year, 39 students transferred from El Molino to Analy, and 14 students transferred from Analy to El Molino. In 2017-18, 21 students transferred from El Molino to Analy, and 19 students transferred from Analy to El Molino. In 2018-19, 23 students transferred from El Molino to Analy, and 18 students transferred from Analy to El Molino.

But not everyone who wanted to do an intradistrict transfer was allowed to do so.  Five students were denied intradistrict transfers in the 2016-17; 18 in 2017-18; and five students in 2018-19.

Board member Ted Walker noted that the intradistrict transfer numbers probably didn’t capture the whole picture. “The word on the street is that we make it very difficult to transfer,” he said, “so some families who may have wanted to transfer may not have bothered trying.”

At the same time that the school district was denying some intradistrict transfers, both high schools, trapped in graying districts and eager for more per-pupil ADA money, were accepting interdistrict transfer students from areas like Santa Rosa, Cotati and Windsor. There were 380 interdistrict transfers into Analy this year, and 80 interdistrict transfers in El Molino.

Superintendent Toni Beal was the one who discovered the district’s divergence from the state’s open enrollment policy. Earlier this month, she was reviewing the intradistrict approval process with the principals of Analy and El Molino — looking for a way to equalize the number of transfers between the two — when she discovered the discrepancy between the state regulations and the district’s current policy.

“That was when I contacted our legal counsel to assist with a proposed revision that complied with current education code,” Beal said.

What happens next?

Mori presented the board with a rewritten intradistrict transfer policy. The board will take it under consideration— Mori warned them that there’s very little wiggle room — and will discuss and probably vote on it at their next meeting on December 12.

Before finalizing the new policy, the district needs to reconfirm the capacity numbers for each high school and create a new timeline for applications for both intradistrict and interdistrict transfers.

Now comes the hard part: telling families who were denied an intradistrict transfer about the policy change. Several members of the board members were adamant out getting the word out to the community as soon as possible. The district will be contacting the families of students who were denied intradistrict transfers and informing them about the error. They will also be informing all families in the district about their right to do an intradistrict transfer if they so choose.

“I don’t think we can predict what will happen, but legally, it’s something that we have to do,” said David Stecher, president of the school board, referring to the change of policy.

What will happen to El Molino?

From the moment the district’s attorney made her announcement, the question of what would happen to El Molino, which has struggled with enrollment for almost 20 years, hung heavy in the room.

When El Molino principle Matt Dunkle got up to give his monthly principal’s report—usually a mix of good news and upcoming events— he delivered an impassioned cri de coeur.

“El Molino Night is November 29 at 6 p.m., which is going to be more important than ever for our school,” he began and then went off script. “This decision could be catastrophic,” he said, referring to the intradistrict transfer policy. “I’m proud of the people I work with. We work hard all the time,” he said, choking back emotion. “To spend all these years fighting our way back and to face another battle is a bit much. I hope there will be a serious discussion about this policy change. You can just look at the numbers and see it’s going to be a challenge.”

Superintendent Toni Beal is more sanguine about El Molino’s future. According to Beal, El Molino’s enrollment problems began back in the early 2000s in the era of No Child Left Behind, when poor results on two consecutive state tests caused the school to be listed as a Program Improvement school, which automatically allowed students to transfer to another school in the district. (California’s current open enrollment policy didn’t come into being until 2015, according to Beal.)

“It is my understanding that El Molino was close to capacity back in 2001 when the requests to transfer from El Molino to Analy began to increase,” she said.

Seventy students voted with their feet that first year, moving to Analy.

It’s been a slow bleed ever since, and the district’s ever stricter intradistrict transfer policy has been one weapon used to staunch the flow. The other defense has been a concerted effort to improve the program at El Molino, which, with a slew of innovative programs and rising test scores, seems to have been successful.

“Since that time, WSCUHSD and the El Molino administration and staff have made a conscious effort to stabilize enrollment by expanding and publicizing its innovative programs and practices,” Beal said. “Today, El Molino and Analy High Schools offer very similar programs and facilities and are supported by very active, involved communities. I am optimistic that our informed parents and school communities will see and understand El Molino as the school that it is today and not be influenced by the events of more than 10 years ago.”

The district will know whether that’s true or not soon enough. The current application period for existing intradistrict transfer students opened on November 12, and the period for new intradistrict transfers opens in January.

(3) comments


This is really a precarious way to open up this issue. First, it's really not 100% clear that open enrollment is the only legal option. This is one legal opinion. Second, i'd like to point out that the events that initially lead to a big transfer of El Molino to Analy were created by issues revolving around teacher behavior that impacted how the tests were conducted, and then impacted the test scores indirectly, but not literally on the value of the testscores themselves. Finally, opening up this type of issue without a plan in place really leave El Molino community in a bind. What do kids do? Do they wait until the spring to find out if the school will survive at current levels of academic and extra curricular opportunities? What are teachers supposed to do, wait and see or start looking for other jobs? Another issue -- many of our kids just went through a school transition at Forestville Middle school. Our daughter's class got stuck in a completely lame-duck year, as the school prepared to transition to the High School District. Unfortunately, the process couldn't be done quickly enough to have a full program in place. All of the teachers left knowing what was coming around the corner and the kids were left with a make shift academic program. The 8th graders really took a hit. Now that's 8th grade-- how do we help keep these High School kids on their academic and extra curricular tracts during this messy process? That's what the District needs to focus on most. Let's not let EL Molino die a slow death. If they choose to open enrollment and a signficant impact on El Mo is foreseen, they need a plan in place ASAP to give current El Mo student extra time to make decisions, to visit Analy and other districts so they be sure to keep on their career or academic paths.

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Forgive my long comment but I have a background in satisfies and epidemiology.

Is there a sweetspot where student numbers would be enough in each school to keep both schools open? Perhaps if that is the case families would be interested in choosing a school to support the keeping of a school open. Has the reason for transfer into Analy or Elmo from other districts such as Windsor (380 vs 80) been studied? Does Analy do more active promotion of the school in these areas? Was there a great increase in transfers to both schools due to the 2017 fires? Did students go to other school such as Cardinal Newman (often out of tradition following a parent's school).

Does the same ruling apply to transfers at the K-5, and 6-8?

It might help to study the demographics of transfers at these levels too. For example do parents send children to Oak Grove, then Willowside, and then El Molino? Is the greatest factor for parents and students going to the same school as friends; especially in the case of bullying or silent bullying in the form of invisible exclusion or verbal harassing? Personally, the people that a I know that transferred at the middle school or high school level did so to keep their students with their friends rather than for academic or other reasons, especially when their peer group was teasing or excluding due to a misunderstanding of a child's subtle differently-abled status such as high-functioning autism, hearing loss, different strengths in social skills, or being labeled as different in younger grades.

Has the specific reasons for requests for transfers been study at the family level?

El Molino was very popular choice at Willowside so children could remain with friends. The issue of where children go in high school has much to do with where they chose to go to elementary and middle school is my guess, and then groups of friends want to stay together.

Even factors such as where siblings went or are going can influence choices as tradition or for ease of transportation. It would be valid to study whether the discontinuation of bus services also influenced enrollment number patterns. Excuse any typos but the size of print and this tiny comment box makes for very difficult proof-reading for me!☺️


One factor affecting El Molino enrollment is what happened at Forestville Elementary. Last December the Forestville Union Board of Trustees abruptly chose to not operate the pre-school/after school program. Their decision was heavily influenced by the Superintendent. After community questioning they reversed their decision. Unfortunately, much time was lost in this process and ultimately an outside company was hired to run the program. The net effect is that some young families have sent their children to places like Oak Grove and from there the path usually leads to attending Analy even if they live in Forestville. All of this is very legal but, unfortunately for El Molino it is another contributor to declining enrollment. The "bottom line" is that Boards of Trustees need to make their decisions based on solid facts and not be unduly influenced by an administrator.

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