A school no more

Alta Vista schoolyard sounds to be silenced Thursday after a century (Third of a series)
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The sounds of the schoolyard carry into Jeanne Knowles kitchen. And to her, they’re music. Knowles, who can claim children and grandchildren as Alta Vista School students, has lived in a Victorian at the corner of Oak and Huntley streets for the past 45 years. The school is directly across from her house and part of her life. She has set her clock to the school’s bell schedule and she can watch from several vantage points inside her home as children walk to and from school. Tucked comfortably into the neighborhood and deeply into Auburn’s collective consciousness, Alta Vista closes Thursday, with no plans to reopen. As Knowles talked from her porch Wednesday, a teacher’s whistle screeched and carried across the street. The happy screams and shrieks of children on the playground wafted through the air. “The noise never bothered me,” Knowles said. “In fact, I’ll miss it.” They once called the neighborhood Huntley Heights. It was built up before Alta Vista School came to be – a patchwork quilt of rural properties decorated with ornate Victorians on land near the stagecoach roads linking Auburn to Foresthill and Colfax. East of the Central Pacific railroad tracks, the neighborhood grew enough for parents to establish a school there in 1908 and build on the present Alta Vista grounds three years later. The first schoolhouse cost $3,080 and was finished within 60 days of construction. With a view over the American River Canyon that takes in the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the school was renamed Alta Vista in 1916 – “alta vista” meaning “high view” in Spanish. For nearly 100 years, Alta Vista School has given the neighborhood a focus and generations of children from the same families have walked the same sidewalks to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. The final school day will play out Thursday with its share of hugs, farewells and perhaps a wistful tear or two. The Auburn Union School District board voted 3-2 earlier this year to close the school as a cost-cutting measure, with no plans to re-open it in August. Fifth-grade teacher Jon Errek is retiring after 37 years at Alta Vista School. He describes the assemblage of buildings clustered around a hilltop as his “home away from home” and its staff as “like family.” Shepherding fifth graders to a waiting bus for the school’s Super Citizens Swim Party, Errek said the school’s closure has yet to hit him hard. That should come Friday, after students have left and he’s alone cleaning out his classroom and his desk – deciding what to take and what to leave behind. One estimate calculates 15,000 students have gone through Alta Vista’s doors. Errek knew perhaps a third of them, maybe more. “I have a lot of wonderful memories,” Errek said. “But I’ve had no time to think about it yet. There’s too much to do. I’m focusing on the moment.” Moments like the final awards night on Wednesday, with 20 eighth-grade students ready to make the step up to high school. One of the students receiving their diplomas was Benjamin Porter, whose grandmother, Nancy Ellis, will be taking her last glimpse of an Alta Vista School indelibly etched in her memory. Her two sons went to school there and now two of her grandsons have gone there. And for many years, she lived on Lincoln Way across from the playground. That meant the yard was constantly sprouting balls of all shapes and sizes errantly thrown or hit too far from the school playground to retrieve. Sometimes it was the family lab fetching the balls and bringing them into the yard. “I would put them out on the driveway so the kids that cut through our driveway from the streets behind us would take them back to school,” Ellis said in an e-mail message. Anna Dobbins, graduated from the Alta Vista Grammar School in 1947 in a class of two girls and five boys. Dobbins recalled collecting foil off gum wrappers for World War II materials drives and playing hopscotch on the playground. When she returned to the school for last month’s anniversary celebration, Dobbins said she found little the same from 60 or more years ago, with a couple of stairways the only relics from her school days. For students now attending Alta Vista, the closure will scatter classmates to Skyridge, Auburn Elementary, E.V. Cain and Bowman schools, among others. In many cases, they’ll walk to a school bus instead of a school. Third grader Harley Long, a student that office staff muse should be sheathed in bubble wrap, had come to the Alta Vista office wincing in pain Wednesday after a hard fall off the monkey bars. But his smile shone through the grimace when asked what he’ll remember most about a school that will soon be no more. “The teachers,” he said. Alta Vista’s final bell rings out at 12:20 p.m. Thursday. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at