Karen Turner invested the last eight years into developing curriculum, building an inventory of classroom resources, and shaping a positive learning environment for pre-kindergarten students with disabilities at Angels Camp Structured Preschool.
On July 8, she watched the school burn to the ground into the early hours of the morning.
The fire was reported just after midnight, and responding agencies were able to keep it confined to the building, which is located in the 500 block of Stanislaus Ave. near Mark Twain Elementary School, according to an Angels Camp Police Department press release.
The cause is under investigation, and residents who may have seen “something out of the ordinary” or have information about how the fire started are encouraged to contact the department, the release states.
There were no staff or students on-site when the fire broke out, and the site has been closed for in-person learning since Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order in late March to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Angels Camp Structured Preschool is one of five Calaveras County Office of Education (CCOE) preschool programs throughout the county that offers special education services for kids who require a more structured learning setting with specialized support.
Turner has been the single teacher at the school since she opened the location in 2012 as an expansion to the existing preschool program. Five paraprofessionals, including a speech pathologist, a physical education coach and occupational therapists, help Turner run the class.
“I put my heart and soul into the program and the building for the last eight years,” Turner said, adding that the class size has tripled to 18 students over that time. “To have it all taken away, it’s a hard thing to deal with.”
One of her staff members called Turner around 1 a.m. the night of the fire, and they drove to the school together to witness it firsthand.
Turner said she remembered a firefighter taking her into his arms and comforting her as the blaze roared through the night. Full containment was reported at around 2:40 a.m.
“We were there until a little after 4 a.m. and were told to go home and get some rest, so we did,” Turner said. “I was back at 7:30 a.m. the next morning, and seeing it in the light was even more devastating than the night before.”
To Turner’s surprise, from outside a shattered window with a charred black wooden frame, she saw a neon tetra swimming around in a murky aquarium. Fire personnel were able to save the fish, who hadn’t been living there that long.
The tank was just one of many new features at the school, which expanded to about 3,500 square feet after an orthopedic surgeon that had been practicing out of the same building retired earlier this year, Turner said.
“When another part of the building become available, we jumped at that opportunity to expand the space,” Turner said. “We did a full remodel in like six weeks.”
One parent jumped onto the project to paint a rainbow fish mural, which was finished just days before the fire, and an x-ray room was remodeled into a sensory room for helping children work through their emotions.
Turner and her students only had two weeks of learning in the larger setting before COVID-19 “took it all away,” Turner said.
Turner and her staff provide a range of services to help students learn life skills and basic literacy, with the goal of being able to place them in a general education classroom after two years.
Many of her students are autistic and experience difficulty communicating.
She said she lost eight years worth of teaching materials to the fire, including picture icons that covered routines for toilet training, hand-washing and eating, among others.
CCOE is currently compiling a list of materials that were lost to the fire for an insurance claim, according to Assistant Superintendent and SELPA Director Janine Schumann.
“That’s going to be expensive. We have a lot of materials invested in that program, and we just expanded into the larger section of the building,” she said, with reference to books, toys, scissors, chairs, tables, cubbies, paint, test kits for evaluating students and more.
The county office of education is looking at alternative sites, but state budget cuts related to COVID-19 will make it challenging to find an ideal location close to a general education preschool before the Fall school year, Schumann said.
“We’re funded by public education dollars, so we will always look at trying to find something cost-effective that meets the needs of the students,” Schumann said. “We’re lucky we have a great community, and already have folks reaching out to donate and help out.”
It will likely be harder to relocate to a space of the same size that will allow proper social distancing, she added.
A return to in-person learning in the fall is not a given just yet, given COVID-19 concerns. CCOE is still awaiting guidance from the California Department of Health, according to Debbie Strand, coordinator of communications and student events.