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Sonoma may get new private school next fall

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New School Sonoma public meeting

December 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sonoma Community Center. Email holly@NewSchoolSonoma.org.

A Sonoma mother of four is hoping to open a new private school in fall 2019 offering kindergarten and first-grade classes at a Sonoma farm, combining project-based education with Sonoma’s rural roots.

Holly Sorkin’s children attended Crescent Montessori in Sonoma until the school shut down its K-8 classes, retaining only the preschool for the 2018-19 school year. Now, Sorkin, a computer scientist, hopes to create an alternative for her children and others in the area with $100,000 in seed money for the new school.

“You can launch a school on a shoestring with rent and a teacher and an aide’s salary for $100,000 in Sonoma,” said Sorkin, who would not divulge the name of the private donor who contributed the seed money. She has dubbed the school New School Sonoma, www.newschoolsonoma.org.

“We are not satisfied with the options for our children,” said Sorkin, referring to herself and her husband Stephen. She said the school would offer project-based learning, an element of STEM, the science, technology, engineering and math-based teaching approach currently in use in many districts, including the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

Sorkin said her goal is to establish a school that uses a “progressive” learning approach, which she defined, among other things, as rejecting the idea of homework and testing for children younger than the fifth grade, instead allowing students to learn on their own timelines.

Britta Johnson, the head of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board, and Socorro Shiels, superintendent of the district, said they were unaware of Sorkin’s plans.

“I had not heard anything until you mentioned it,” Shiels said in an email. “Of course, I think our schools meet the needs of our community and prepare all students for incredible opportunities.”

Regarding the proposed farm location, “When we moved from San Francisco to Sonoma five years ago, we planted a garden, and my kids were out there in the garden every day,” Sorkin said. “Look at the math, the science, the biology, the art you can take from that natural experience that Sonoma makes it so easy to have.”

Sorkin would not divulge the proposed location, saying, “I want to talk to as many people as I can” to gauge interest in the new school before signing a lease. She is holding a meeting for interested parents Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sonoma Community Center. To RSVP, email holly@NewSchoolSonoma.org.

Sorkin served on the board of Crescent Montessori for two years, but other than that, she has no training or experience in education. She has consulted with Ken and Cynthia Wornick, Sonoma residents who launched a religious school, the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School, in San Mateo County in 1985.

Ken Wornick said he has been advising Sorkin on such things as how to obtain funding and a building. Sorkin said she also is consulting with the Sonoma County Moms group on Facebook.

Sorkin said about a dozen families have expressed an interest in the school, and she estimated that New School Sonoma might launch with around 10 to 12 students. She expects for the annual tuition to be $10,000.

The new school is unlikely to have much of an effect on the school district, because of its initial small size and the nature of the funding received by the district.

New School Sonoma public meeting

December 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sonoma Community Center. Email holly@NewSchoolSonoma.org.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District is what is known as a basic aid district, funded mainly by property taxes. As a private school, New School Sonoma would not be eligible for a share of the property taxes that comprise most of the district’s funding.

“If they are in basic aid status, the reality is that the impact will be less,” said Jonathan Kaplan, the K-12 education and education funding expert for the California Budget & Policy Center.

Also, Kaplan said, “If there is a decline of, say, 20 students out of roughly 4,000, you’re talking about a change that’s not that great. It’s less than one percent.”

It is true, though, that if more and more families choose New School Sonoma instead of district schools over time, it could have a more significant effect on enrollment at the district. Student enrollment has declined 7 percent over the last ten years.

In the 2007-2008 school year, 4,797 students were enrolled in the district, according to data from the California Department of Education. Ten years later, in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, 4,451 students were enrolled.

While an apples-to-apples comparison isn’t available, the number of school-age children in the City of Sonoma appears to have declined between 2010 and 2016, according to the U.S. Census.

Children age 5 to 17 comprised 14 percent of the city’s population in 2010, based on census numbers. Numbers aren’t available for the same age group for 2016, but the data for a similar group, children age 5 to 14, show that this group comprised 11 percent of the city’s population in 2016.

Kaplan said, “What I don’t know is how challenged Sonoma Valley’s books are, what they have planned for in terms of attendance and enrollment. If you are making plans and your enrollment is at a certain trajectory and something happens, as we saw with the fire in Paradise, you can see an unintended consequence.”

Reach Janis Mara at janis.mara@sonomanews.com.