Big history at tiny Petaluma school
By dianne reber hart | Aug 29, 2016

The 12 students at Union Elementary School just south of Petaluma share a history with children who once used inkwells and quill pens to master their lessons.

Youngsters still climb the same stairs to enter the one-room schoolhouse on Red Hill Road that’s been in use for 120 years.

As the new academic year begins, it’s with a quiet sigh of relief for those who worried the tiny student body wasn’t big enough to keep the doors open another year.

A public school governed by the Marin County Office of Education, like all schools it requires a minimum average daily attendance to remain open. Just shy of that number last winter, enrollment is now double, assuring the historic schoolhouse another few years.

“It’s now the financial situation that’s at risk for us to be at closure,” said Cynthia Walsh, 44, of Petaluma, the school’s principal and lone teacher. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

The rural schoolhouse, just a skip across the Marin County line, is now available as a rental venue for everything from meetings to weddings. It’s a fundraising strategy Walsh and the school board are implementing to help with complex funding issues to keep the school open into the future.

Now beginning her 11th year at Union School, Walsh is grateful her students have another opportunity to experience the hands-on learning and close-knit bonds found at the campus.

“I’m thankful every day,” she said. “I know how special it is out here and how unique our school is. We’re very much a family.”

Surrounded by rolling hills and neighboring farms, the white clapboard schoolhouse is a snapshot of long-ago days when boys and girls used slates instead of paper for reading, writing and arithmetic.

Gingham curtains provide a homey feel inside the classroom, where Uni the fish, Buttercup the rabbit and Walsh’s mixed-breed dog Skipper are the schoolhouse pets.

The tiny building, with a bell tower and a bordering white picket fence, is so curious in the 21st century that unsuspecting passers-by often mistake it for a museum.

“People stop and take pictures and ask questions. It happens all the time,” Walsh said.

Tourists from as far away as Australia have come by during recess or lunchtime, some when class is in session, surprised to discover it’s a functioning elementary school.

Those with perfect timing can even hear the tower bell ringing. A student is chosen each day to ring the bell, a reward for positive behavior, good citizenship or academic achievement.

“We say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and we ring the bell at recess,” Walsh said. She added, laughing, “And we teach cursive.”

The school originally drew children from neighboring dairies and ranches, as many as 30-some students from kindergarten to sixth grade.

“I was told the teacher would ring the bell and kids would run down the hills,” Walsh said.

Today’s students include children from throughout Petaluma and a few from within Union’s district.

“Families are attracted to the individual attention and the opportunities for academic success,” Walsh said. “We cater our curriculum and our lessons to the needs of our students.”

She and teaching assistant Hannah Early are the only full-time staff. They work with children individually and in groups, adhering to state regulations but having greater teaching flexibility because of the small enrollment.

Older students help younger ones, almost a rite of passage as kids move up grade levels.

Several specialists visit the school to provide instruction in subjects like Spanish, science, music and art.

Much of the learning is hands-on and project-based, with field trips planned at least once per month to enhance classroom curriculum.

Walsh taught in traditional elementary classrooms for a decade before a friend encouraged her to apply to Union School, thinking she’d be a perfect match.

While she no longer has the benefit of co-workers and broader campus amenities, she’s discovered a unique opportunity to make an ongoing difference for students.

She is their teacher year after year, and knows their personalities, interests and families.

“I go to their soccer games and birthday parties, their 4-H events. Whatever they’re into, I’m invited. I’m more than just their teacher,” she said.

That has benefits in the classroom, where Walsh has a deep understanding of learning models, abilities and strategies to best support individuals.

“I feel like it’s efficient,” she said. “I feel it’s a really beneficial way for students to experience school.”

Her sons have been among her students. Joshua Haydon, 12, now attends Petaluma Junior High School as a seventh-grader while Jackson Haydon, 10, is in the fifth grade at Union School.

The school provides a sense of innocence that’s unique in today’s world.

“In a way, we’re preserving childhood for a longer time,” Walsh said. “As a parent, I can see the gift of having them here.”

She wishes there were more schools like Union School.

“Every school should be this way. We shouldn’t be the lone school.”

Although there are just a handful of one-room schools operating in the North Bay, Walsh said students don’t really recognize the history or unique experience Union School provides, at least until they’re older.

“Any adult who comes here feels that. Any child who comes here just goes to school. For our kids, this is home to them, this is school to them,” she said.

For information about event rentals at Union Elementary School, visit

Right to left, Austin Gilardi, Jackson Hayden and Josie Ielmorini run to be the first to "kick the can" during recess at Union School, a 120-year-old, one-room schoolhouse outside of Petaluma. (JOHN BURGESS/The Press Democrat)