Paradise schools are making rebuilding progress after Camp Fire

Trenton Taylor

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There was one thing going through the mind of Paradise Unified School District Superintendent Michelle John on the morning of the Camp Fire, “Get these kids and staff off the ridge safely.”

“Communications broke down throughout the town, but our busses immediately got the kids, and cell phones were used to call parents to get these kids off the ridge as soon as we can – every single child,” she said.

It has been just over five months since the Camp Fire burned through the town of Paradise on Nov. 8, 2018. Although most of the town was burnt to the ground, multiple school buildings survived the blaze with minimal damage.

However, the displacement of students and staff forced some to take their education elsewhere, like Paradise High School student Danielle Wagner.

“I was bouncing between hotel rooms from here (Chico) and Davis staying with different parents,” she said. “I started school at Davis High School in January, but it only took me five days to realize that it was not for me.”

Wagner said that she signed a lease at The Post on Nord so that way she could move back and continue school here with her classmates.

“I missed my friends, they were the only normalcy I had left. Nothing would ever be as good as Paradise,” she said.

Hazardous air conditions forced all Butte County schools, including Chico State, to close down for two weeks to keep students and faculty safe. During that time, PUSD was hard at work figuring out how to keep education going for their students.

John said the biggest challenges were figuring out where the students and staff are and finding facilities to use.

Independent study classes were coordinated from the Chico Mall until the end of the school semester on Dec. 19, 2018. Now, Paradise schools are continuing in facilities all over Butte County.

John said that donations of backpacks, pencils, crayons, notebooks and more had been coming in from all over the world, and after around two weeks, students were ready to get back into classrooms.

Paradise High School

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Paradise High School still stands after the Camp Fire, experiencing a little bit of smoke damage Photo credit: Trenton Taylor

PHS currently is using a building on Fortress Avenue in Chico close to the airport.

The two-story building is divided into sections using room-dividers, which gives PHS the ability to use the entire building for all school purposes.

John said that since the building is not approved by the Department of School Architecture, it was difficult to get the permits to use the facility.

John said they recently just lost their principal, Loren Lighthall, who had to move elsewhere because he could not find a place for him and his family to live.

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“Someone special is coming out of retirement for me,” referring to Jeff Marcus, who will be returning as interim principal to replace Lighthall, after retiring at the end of the 2015 school year.

Debbie Sharrett, PHS Secretary, noted that there are around 500 kids currently enrolled at the school and that there are more than 200 graduating seniors this year.

“Of all the Paradise schools, they were the largest group that returned,” she said.

PHS’s original campus on Maxwell Drive is still in great shape and is going to re-open next year to serve as a school for seventh to 12th grades. Sharrett said that they hoped to have the campus ready for graduation ceremonies this coming June.

Paradise Intermediate School

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Paradise Intermediate School’s campus remains untouched after the Camp Fire Photo credit: Trenton Taylor

With the help of Lowe’s Home Improvement, PINT is currently using the old Orchard Supply Hardware building on East Avenue in Chico.

John said that Lowe’s owned the building and recently sold it, but, they asked the owners to hold off until the end of the school year so that way PINT could use the building.

“Thank God for Lowe’s,” she said.

The building uses the old store aisles as classroom dividers, creating spaces for all of the grade levels and the different subjects. Walking around inside, it still looks like a hardware store.

inside pint

The inside of the Paradise Intermediate building still looks like a hardware store on the inside Photo credit: Trenton Taylor

Principal Larry Johnson said since so many students were living in places in Chico where they might not be able to access the internet, T-mobile stepped in to help.

“T-mobile donated us 200 mobile hotspots for free so that way students can check them out and take them home with them,” he said.

The campus on Pearson Road in Paradise sits untouched after the Camp Fire, despite being surrounded by neighboring businesses and buildings that were destroyed. The campus is going to be used for Kindergarten to Sixth grades next school year.

Paradise Elementary & Ponderosa Elementary

ptown elementary

Paradise Elementary School did not survive the Camp Fire Photo credit: Trenton Taylor

Cedarwood and Paradise elementary schools suffered severe damage to both campuses. A few buildings experienced fire damage at Ponderosa Elementary on Pentz Road, and Paradise Elementary’s campus on Pearson Road was destroyed in its entirety.

With some help from the school districts of Durham and Oroville, each school is thankfully continuing to operate.

John said that Oroville Unified School District was able to let Paradise Elementary take over one of their old school campuses.

“Oroville said they have a school that they were going to close,” she said. “They only have about 50 kids there, so they moved them and gave us the school.”

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One of the buildings at Ponderosa Elementary experienced some fire damage Photo credit: Trenton Taylor

John said Durham Unified School District said they have classroom space available at their elementary school, so they were able to move Ponderosa Elementary students there.

While the two schools are separate until the end of the term, they will be combining and using the old campus of PINT next school year.

Paradise Charter Schools

Achieve Charter School is one of the independently-run public charter schools in Paradise, along with Achieve Charter High School which opened in August 2018. The K-Eight school campus on Elliott Road was not damaged, but the high school campus on Nunnely Road was completely destroyed. Achieve Charter is building a temporary school for the K-Eight school at Life Church in Chico for next school year, but the high school will not re-open.

Paradise Charter Middle School’s campus on Clark Road did not suffer any fire damage. For the time being, PCMS will be using facilities at CORE Butte Charter School in Chico, that also had a center in Paradise.

Around the Ridge

PUSD has two schools in the town of Magalia, just north of Paradise. Cedarwood Elementary School had no damage and was able to re-open right as school resumed. John said that Pine Ridge School had some damage, but was able to re-open in January.

While John said that PUSD is excited to be returning schools to Paradise next year, she believes that the district will be losing a good amount of students.

“We do think that this summer we’ll take a big hit,” she said. “Families have to make decisions. If you bought a home in Chico, enroll in a school in Chico, and be where you can be a part of that community.”

With so many people and buildings affected, Paradise will be in the rebuilding stage for some time. When the time comes that Paradise is back to how it used to be, PUSD will be there ready to educate the community.

Trenton Taylor can be reached at @T_Taylor34 on Twitter or [email protected]

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