Monday, August 29, 2005

Vallejo's Mare Island Elementary re-opens doors to Farragut pupils

August 29, 2005

M.I. Elementary re-opens doors to Farragut pupils

By J.M. BROWN, Times-Herald staff writer

Kindergarten teacher Stephanie Whitmore greets one of her former students from last year, Kamel Naylor, 6, who will be a first-grader at the newly re-opened Mare Island Elementary School in Vallejo. Whitmore taught at Mare Island up until it closed then transferred to Farragut Elementary until it was phased out last year. Photo: Mike Jory/Times-Herald

When students and teachers enter Mare Island Elementary this morning for the first day of school, they'll see familiar faces, but the surroundings will be totally new.

While that could have triggeredextra first-day jitters, a picnic on the school grounds Sunday helped former Farragut Elementary students, parents and staff alleviate the tension by getting to know each other again and tour their new campus.

The Mare Island school has absorbed Farragut's students and will also serve families moving into new homes on the redeveloped former naval base.

Nearly 300 students were enrolled as of Sunday, which is about 100 shy of the school's capacity, new principal Margaret Clark said. Several families enrolled children on Sunday, which marked a new beginning for a campus that has withstood much change.

"Everybody has just completely come together," Clark said. "Everybody feels very excited about the school year."

For nearly three weeks, 15 teachers and other support staff have been readying the campus for rebirth, a theme felt throughout the island as large, modern houses with infant lawns rise near abandoned Navy buildings once left alone with their gorgeous views of Mount Tamalpais and San Pablo Bay.

"It's beautiful," said kindergarten teacher Stephanie Whitmore. "It's on an island, so it's kind of special."

Whitmore already considers the Mare Island school home and is glad to be back. Having started teaching there in 1990, Whitmore saw the island's transition from the home of a busy naval shipyard into an empty terrain that resembled the Broadway set of South Pacific long after the last curtain call.

The school stayed open after the Navy closed the shipyard but was shut last year by the school district's state administrator, Dr. Richard Damelio, to save money. All of the Mare Island school's students and staff, including Whitmore, were sent to other schools.

But then Damelio decided to close Farragut instead because it could not accommodate new students moving into the 1,400 new homes planned for Mare Island. The island's school is larger, newer and can hold the Farragut students as well as the new children.

"I've seen many changes," Whitmore said, adding that she believes this year will begin the Mare Island school's best chapter yet. "Now we have a mix of community."

Many of Farragut's teachers and staff like Whitmore were moved to the Mare Island school, and new bus routes will shuttle the former Farragut children to make the transition smooth for families. That comforts former Farragut mother Zabrina Robbson, whose two sons - Wayne Shoop and Kamel Naylor - will start the first grade at Mare Island today.

"I was happy with Farragut because it was right around the corner," Robbson said. "(Mare Island) is a little further off. I can't get to (the children) right away.

"But I really appreciate the buses," she added, also conceding the "environment is better" at Mare Island and "there's more room."

Joseph and Alexandra Flores, also parents of a first-grader from Farragut, said the year ahead will ease uncertainty about the transition. But Mare Island school seemed "beautiful" at first glance, they said.

"It looks great," Joseph Flores said. "We don't know until the school year starts."

After a tour of his new school, son Joseph Jr. said, "I like the teacher and the classroom." When asked if he would miss his old school or if he was happy about his new campus, he said, "I'm excited to be here."

- E-mail J.M. Brown at or call 553-6834.

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