The Tomales problem


November 5, 2009
West Marin Citizen


Browse in West Marin

After a meeting of the Shoreline school board in Tomales a couple of weeks ago, I was driving back to Point Reyes Station with my wife and son. There was a dense fog, and my hands were tight on the wheel as I took the narrow curves. I was thinking of all the crashes along this stretch of Highway 1, and in particular a friend’s son who had smashed his car on the way back from Tomales High.

And how Shoreline’s old buses have no seat belts.

When we got home my wife and I discovered we had been thinking the same thing. Did we really want our son – he’s only seven but the years go fast – to have to make this daily trip himself one day? Most important, was anything happening at the high school that would make the trek worth it, considering the alternatives that are — or could be made – available?

And why was the high school way up there to begin with? Almost half the students in the district are down here at the southern end. Shouldn’t the high school be closer to the middle?

We are not the only ones who have such thoughts. There are parents in town who say their kids did well at Tomales. Some went there themselves. But most to my experience regard the approach of high school years with dread. They rent apartments in Fairfax or San Anselmo so they can send their kids to Drake, or move the whole family there or Petaluma, or else send the kids to private school. (That’s if they can afford it – a year at Marin Academy or Branson costs over $32,000.)

The problem has festered for decades. Back in the Sixties, someone offered to donate land for a new high school in Point Reyes Station. The new structure was built in Tomales instead – where the high school has been since the days a railroad could take students up the coast. Today, we at the southern end of this strange amalgam have little connection with Tomales High. It seems almost like another country. We hear little about programs or projects or great teachers, or anything else that might cause us to be enthused.

What we do hear about is football. It seems to loom pretty large up there, which is not entirely reassuring. (I say that as one who played football and loved it.) Kids tell me that the football team travels to away games in chartered coaches, while the soccer team goes by school bus. This does not suggest a commitment to excellence for all students, or a willingness to embrace the present.

The Shoreline board and staff strike me as public-spirited people who are dedicated to their work. They have tough jobs. But certain problems are built-in, and the awkward geography of the district is one, along with the distinctive cultures at either end. Many parents down here think that, for whatever reason, there has not been enough innovation at the high school to outweigh this. School board members seem to know it; some have sent their own kids elsewhere too.

Perhaps it is time to reassess the union. The West Marin School is not the problem. There’s always room for improvement. But most parents I know feel pretty good about what we have there. The teachers and staff do an exceptional job in some challenging circumstances. The Inverness School for grades K through One, which is part of the West Marin School, is a hidden gem. The problem is not our local school but rather the system, and the way it has been designed.

In Bolinas the alignment runs horizontally rather than vertically. Kids down there go over the hill to Tam for high school rather than up the coast. Is it possible that ours could go to Drake, without the strategies they must resort to now? The drive to Drake from here is just a few minutes longer than to Tomales. The roads are less curvy, and our daily lives flow more in that direction to begin with.

I understand the advantages of a small rural high school. I went to one. You get to shine in a small pond. But a larger high school has advantages too. School district lines are a complicated business, but let’s think about possibilities for a moment.

Public transportation is one. If more kids from here went over the hill to school each day, then the Stage might play a role in taking them. There would be more riders and therefore, perhaps, more runs. School transit could enhance public transit, instead of operating in its own diesel-burning cocoon as it does now.

At the Shoreline board meeting the Tomales problem actually came up. That’s a start. We need a full-blown review of the state of this union – whether it can work, and if not, what the alternatives might be.