Big changes as Petaluma students return to school

It is not only a new school year, but a year of change in Petaluma schools with new principals in both Petaluma City Schools high schools, two new elementary school principals in the Old Adobe School District and a new superintendent for the Waugh School District.

School for all but two of the 19 schools in the Petaluma City School District was back in session on Wednesday. Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley and Penngrove, both on a year-round schedule, have been in school since July 17.

The Old Adboe School District also began Wednesday, while the two-school Waugh District gets started on Aug. 20.

Petaluma City Schools

The wave of change that began with an almost completely new school board last November continued during the summer in the Petaluma City Schools District with three new secondary school principals and a new assistant superintendent of student services.

Petaluma High School graduate Justin Mori returns to take over as principal of the west side school succeeding David Stirrat. He knows local education, moving over from Sonoma Valley High School where he was principal last year.

At Casa Grande High School, succeeding principal Eric Backman is Dan Osterman, who steps into the principal’s office after three years as assistant principal at the east side school.

There are also two new assistant principals at Casa Grande and one at Petaluma.

Christina Lee and Samantha Azofeifa join returning administrator Stephen Owens on the administrative staff at Casa Grande while Erin Dinday, a former teacher at Petaluma High School, returns as assistant principal after two years as an assistant principal of Martinez Junior High School.

Dinday replaces Kelly O’Neil Kriss who is moving over to Petaluma Junior High School to assume the principal position. Prior to coming to Petaluma City Schools, O’Neil Kriss worked at both Paradise Intermediate School and Paradise High School.

There is also a significant change in the district administration with Dr. Liz Chacon replacing Dave Rose who has become superintendent of the Gravestein School District in Sebastopol.

Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Gary Callahan said he is very excited about the new staff members.

“We were looking to really diversify the administration to reflect the student population in gender and ethnicity,” he said. “We have some great new people, and the best part is that they all really want to be here.”

Callahan is also pleased at having both Petaluma and Casa Grande high schools recognized by U.S. News & World Report as among the best secondary schools in the nation.

With new fields, a new swimming pool and other major projects completed, the district is now turning to facilities upgrades as it continues to improve facilities through bond money-financed projects.

Emphasis this year is on what Callahan describes as a “significant roofing project at several schools.”

Petaluma High School will get a new paint job and there will also be improvements to some classrooms at Petaluma High and McKinley and Penngrove elementary schools.

The athletic weight room at Casa Grande has been completely refurbished.

Callahan said the Petaluma City Schools District begins the new school year in overall good shape with a projected slight increase in attendance and in “good” financial health.

He does caution that Petaluma, like all California school districts, continues to struggle with what he called “unanticipated expenses,” primarily continuing increases in pension costs for retired employees.

He added that school district employees will continue to ask area state representatives to advocate to close the “equity gap,” the difference in state funds allocated to some districts, primarily with a large number of low-income students, and the amount allocated to districts like Petaluma with fewer low-income students, but equal needs.

Old Adobe School District

There are some new faces, and some changes in the five elementary-school Old Adobe School District, but Superintendent Craig Conte is also proud of what the district has already accomplished.

There are two new principals in the district, with Dan Noble taking over at LaTercera and Leslee Clark now in charge at Old Adobe. Noble is returning to the school where he once taught, while Clark is a former Petaluma City Schools employee who also worked at the Marin County Office of Education.

Also new is Cyndy Kerr-Friberg who is now the director of Student Services.

Loma Vista Elementary School is in the second year of a three-year effort it hopes will lead to a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) certification. Schools completing the IB program are considered among the best in the world. There are fewer than 100 in California.

The district is also in the midst of its first project funded by the Measure L bond passed by voters in 2018 - a new roof for Loma Vista School.

Coming up is the modernization of Old Adobe School, the district’s oldest school.

“That will be a big project,” said Conte. “Eventually every school will be touched.”

The superintendent reported that enrollment in the five-school district continues to increase.

“We’ve seen enrollment in kindergarten and pre-K show the greatest increase,” he said.

The superintendent said the district continues to build on programs and initiatives that have already been put into place with a focus on whole-child education.

Conte pointed to music education now in every school, physical education classes in each school, the replacement of aging Chrome Books where needed and emphasis on technology as recent accomplishments the district is building on as the new school year begins.

“We’re also doing a lot of work in positive behavior modification,” he said.

Waugh School District

What’s new in the two-school Waugh School District becomes apparent even before students enter the Meadow School buildings.

Over the summer, Meadow School, a pre-K through sixth-grade school, has undergone a major renovation. Using funds from a bond measure passed by district voters last year, the school has added new roofing, new carpeting, new exterior paint, dry rot damage repair and a new fire alarm installed at the school. New landscaping is coming up.

There is also a new person in charge with Mike Gardner taking over as district superintendent. One of the first things on his agenda is to thank district voters for passing the bond measure that will also include improvements to Corona Creek School.

“We are grateful to the voters for making our kids a priority and making the improvement happen,” the new superintendent said. “We’re also thankful to our oversight committee for its guidance in guiding our use of the bond dollars.”

School staffs have spent two days learning how to implement a new English Arts curriculum the district will use this school year.

That district staff will include four new members - Brooke Baglietto, the new English Language Development teacher and a former Waugh School District student who now has two students at Meadow School; Jason Dean Sanders, the new district Fine Arts Specialist; Robyn Hamilton, a part-time teacher assigned to implementing a program to help students with exceptional needs; and Julia Vander Venett, the new school psychologist.

Gardner comes to the Waugh School District after working in the San Rafael City Schools District and as an administrator for the Marin County Office of Education. He was trained as a special education teacher.

He is very familiar with the Waugh School District having served on the Waugh District School Board. He has two children at Corona Creek School.

(Contact John Jackson at

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