Never again will El Cerrito's Windrush School echo with the stirring chords of "Pomp & Circumstance."
It was played for the last time Thursday at the graduation at the 35-year-old private school that is closing its doors for good, a that it could no longer pay.
But the final ceremony of the K-8 school was far from doleful. It was animated by a festive spirit of celebration – celebration for the 28 eighth graders graduating from middle school and celebration that members of the school community made it to the end of a precarious last year with smiles on their faces.
Ironically, the ceremony was held in the school's refurbished gym, located in the new middle-school school building that proved to be the downfall of a school known for its progressive-education orientation. Expecting enrollment to remain strong, Windrush issued $13 million in bonds in 2007 to construct the showcase structure, which is rated LEED Platinum, the highest green rating.
But enrollment fell significantly. Some blamed the economy, some blamed the head of school, and some blamed both. In any case, Windrush couldn't meet its debt payments and defaulted last June. Wells Fargo Bank, trustee for the bondholders, went to court in August to foreclose on the school property, which was collateral for the debt.
Facing a financial crisis, the school from the creditors and launched an emergency fundraising campaign. There were several times since last fall when imminent closure loomed as a threat, either from lack of funds or a possible adverse Bankruptcy Court decision in the Wells Fargo attempts to force a closure of the school and forfeiture of the property. Patch coverage of the continuing struggle drew more reader comments than any other issue has done.
The school staved off closure by and surviving court battles to finish the school year under a sometimes stormy .
"So, here we are," began eighth-grade parent Sue Gardner in remarks during the ceremony. She was immediately interrupted by applause and cheers. "It's been an amazing year and sometimes I don't know right now whether to cry, laugh or collapse.
"We just felt so grateful, on so many levels," she said, speaking on behalf of other parents of eighth graders. "And the gratitude really extends to the staff and teachers."
"We had to fight," said Tracy Giles, another eighth-grade parent. "We had to fight for our school. We had to fight for education. But you know what? We're on the other side."
"And I'm really impressed with the speeches that were done today," she said, referring to student speeches. "Each one was truly a jewel. It made me very proud, proud of our community."
Gardner expressed special appreciation for school board chair James Ough, who received a sustained round of heartfelt applause.
"James, who is the parent of an eighth grader here, stepped up literally to take the job of the head of the board and I don't think was able to work very much in the time, and was here every single day to make sure that the school stayed open till now," Gardner said. "I can't even imagine the sacrifices he made, and I want to thank his family for also making their sacrifices so that we could be sitting here today."
Giles also singled out Dana Rosenberg, the school counselor and health teacher who stepped up to take on the job of interim director of the school after the former head of school, Ilana Kaufman, left at the end of February.
"The person that truly brought our school together in the end, the very end," Giles said, "is Dana Rosenberg." Rosenberg likewise received sustained applause.
Rosenberg also served as the keynote speaker, offering sound advice for living, leavened with levity.
"The most important thing is to be true to yourself and who you are," she said. "Ultimately that's what got me to this place. I don't live in fear. I have no secrets, many of you know. And I will always be okay because no matter what, I know who I am.
"And when I was younger, I thought success was something different, I thought success was to be famous, to become a star, drive nice cars, have groupies. But my idea of success is different today. ...
"Success is to live your life with integrity, not to give into your peer pressure to try to be something you're not. It's to be honest, compassionate and contribute in some way.
"Follow your passion and stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else's path – unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path, then by all means please follow it.
"So, this leads me to my final thought: Would it kill you to be a little nicer to your parents?"
The school will hold two weeks of an abbreviated summer camp before it has to vacate the property at the end of this month and turn the keys over to the Cassidy Turley commercial real estate firm, Ough said.
The large campus enjoys a prominent hillside location at Elm and Hill streets, with its elementary school and administrative offices in a distinctive Chinese-themed building that once housed the Chung Mei Home, believed to have been the only orphanage for Chinese boys in the United States. Among the building's decorations are dragons, also the Windrush mascot.
"It's an ending," Ough told Patch. "But it's a happy ending."
For more background on the Windrush crisis, you can see our past stories by clicking "Windrush School" next to Related Topics below this article. We've also posted a list of all Patch stories on the Windrush crisis at the top of our original article, "Crisis at Windrush School: Threat of Imminent Closure."