Rural Petaluma school hit by enrollment decline

Lincoln School, the state’s oldest one-room schoolhouse, needs more students to stay open. It has 7.|

Sharon Jeffrey starts each day at Lincoln School the same way teachers at the tiny one-room schoolhouse have for 146 years, by greeting each student. These days, though, that daily routine has become much shorter.

Only 13 students enrolled for the 2017-18 school year, but at the end of summer, just seven showed up for class at the historic 1872 building in the pastoral Hicks Valley nine miles southwest of Petaluma. The other six students moved out of the area or made plans to attend other schools, Jeffrey said, a decline in enrollment faced by many other area schools, but made more critical given Lincoln’s already emaciated student body.

The state requires schools to maintain at least six students to stay open, and Lincoln already anticipates losing three more students for next school year, meaning it would be forced to shut unless it can recruit at least two more.

“It makes us really want to get the word out,” Jeffrey said. “It would signal the end if we drop below six.”

The dire enrollment situation has inspired a recruitment effort at the school. An open house is planned for tonight, April 26, at 6 p.m., to highlight the campus’ unique learning environment.

“One-room schoolhouses offer a great opportunity for students to learn in an integrated fashion,” said Jeffrey, who has been at Lincoln for one year and previously taught at St. Vincent school in Petaluma and in the Central Valley.

She pointed out that the small class size at the kindergarten through 6th grade school means that each student gets individualized instruction. A full-time teacher’s assistant joins Jeffrey in the classroom and volunteer teachers make regular visits for subjects such as reading.

Janeen Corda Brady has a first-grader, a second-grader and a fifth-grader, or nearly half the student body, at Lincoln School. She currently serves on the three-member school board and graduated from Lincoln in the 1980s, when enrollment ballooned to 14 students.

She remembers going on nature hikes with her teacher right out the school’s front door. She said she tells other parents that their children can get a great, individualized education at Lincoln.

“A lot of people say the bigger schools aren’t working for their kids,” she said. “I encourage them to come out to see how our school works, meet the teachers and the kids. Not only is it a great place, it’s a family.”

Lincoln lays claim to the oldest continuously operating one-room schoolhouse in the state. Nestled among bucolic dairy farms and grassy hills of northern Marin County, its nearest neighbor is the Marin French Cheese Company.

For decades, the school has served children of the surrounding ranches. But as ranchers age and their children move away, there are fewer students from which to draw. Corda Brady’s children are the only Lincoln students who live in the district. The rest have transfered in from outside the area.

This demographic shift threatens the survival of the oldest of the dozen or so remaining one-room schoolhouses in California. Last year, Union School, another one-room schoolhouse just south of Petaluma, closed due to a lack of students. Lincoln School District absorbed Union School’s assets, and the remaining Union students were given the option of transferring to Lincoln. None of them did, said Sam Dolcini, a Lincoln School Board member.

Dolcini, 47, went to Lincoln in the 1980s, when the children of ranch owners and ranch hands “attended as equals,” he said. His 98-year-old father also went to Lincoln, around the time the school was just half a century old.

“One of the fundamental challenges is the overall demographics are based on changing agriculture,” Dolcini said. “The other thing that has changed is now it is easier to take kids into town for school.”

Dolcini said he thinks that school officials can convince enough families to send their kids to Lincoln to avoid closure.

“We are definitely facing enrollment issues,” he said. “But I’m fully confident that we’ll keep plugging right along.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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