Demand to enroll at Napa’s River School – the Napa Valley Unified School District’s only charter middle school — has skyrocketed.

Before this school year started last week, 229 students had hoped to attend the small school, which usually admits 120 incoming sixth-graders via lottery. That left 129 on a temporary waiting list, ultimately to be assigned to other local middle schools.

The previous school year, the wait list totaled about 40 students, said Celeste Akiu, school principal.

The school has an estimated 393 students total.

Akiu said the school’s administration wasn’t expecting such a surge in interest.

“We were quite surprised,” said Akiu. But at the same time, “We’re just really proud and have an awesome program.”

Akiu and her staff haven’t yet pinpointed any one particular reason for the increase. “There’s been a greater interest with Harvest Middle School as it moves into international baccalaureate and dual immersion” programs, said Maren Rocca-Hunt, the NVUSD’s director of elementary education.

“There was an even distribution of interest from all the elementary schools,” she noted.

On the second day of the new school year, River School parents also said they weren’t sure why the school had suddenly become more popular.

“Maybe they heard about the benefits of smaller schools,” and the amount of parental involvement, said Kelly Hurst, a River School parent.

Compared to the 393 students at River, Harvest Middle School has approximately 791 students, Redwood has 955, Silverado has 891 and American Canyon Middle School has 1,008.

Hurst said she chose River School because it is smaller than other middle schools. “I had heard great things,” she said. “I was happy” that her daughter – now a seventh-grader — was able to enroll.

“I’m not surprised” to hear demand at the school has risen, said Hurst. “People are always looking for the best for their kids.”

“I have no idea” why demand surged, said River School parent Mark Shakeri. “I’m curious” to know the reasons, he said.

Shakeri said the school has been a good fit for his seventh grade twin boys. River School “brings out the best in them,” he said. “They have flourished here.”

Miriam Solorio, another River School parent, wondered if interest has risen because word has gotten out that the school will eventually expand when it moves to the Salvador Elementary campus in 2019.

Salvador School will complete its consolidation with the nearby El Centro campus in north Napa in the 2018-2019 school year. River School will then relocate to the former Salvador campus.

With the move to the Salvador site, River School will be able to accommodate more students. Enrollment will expand to 540 students.

“There will be more openings for children to come into our program. We’re really looking forward to that,” Akiu said.

When she heard her first son was able to enroll at River School, “I was so excited,” Solorio said. “I’m really happy with the school.”

Solorio said she chose River School because of its size and philosophy. Among other attributes, “They teach the kids to be responsible,” she said. “It definitely makes them more independent.”

“I think parents are becoming more aware of different programs in the district and looking for the right program for their child,” said Akiu.

River School offers a combination of several features that parents seem to be responding to. It focuses on the arts, she noted. “That’s something we’re really proud of. Every single student in our school is enrolled in an arts class,” said Akiu.

The charter school offers project-based learning. The school focuses on four key concepts: responsible, respectful, resourceful, and responsive. It’s also a New Tech Network middle school.

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As for the remaining 129 incoming sixth-graders who had hoped to enroll at River School, they are assigned to one of the other NVUSD middle schools.

“I wish we could take them all,” Akiu said.

“We do our best to accommodate,” said Elizabeth Emmett, director of communications and community engagement for the Napa Valley Unified School District. “It can be frustrating to parents, we understand that.”

“It’s very difficult when you don’t get the choice you want,” said Rocca-Hunt. “It is hard. We try. But we can’t accommodate everyone.”

While she wasn’t certain why there was increased demand at River School this year, Rocca-Hunt noted that “there have been many more people applying for open enrollment in all of our NVUSD schools.”

There was a 20 percent increase in open enrollment applications over the past three school years, said Emmett.

“There are a lot of different kinds of learners out there and we’re trying offer different educational experiences,” said Emmett.

Schools that saw an increase in enrollment interest included magnet schools such as Napa Junction, Alta Heights, Pueblo Vista, Salvador and Bel Aire elementary.

The dual immersion program at Napa Valley Language Academy is also very popular, she said.

Applications at Pueblo Vista increased 100 percent over the past four open enrollment periods. Open enrollment typically happens in the fall for the following school year.

As for middle schools, Harvest saw a 40 percent increase in applications over the past four open enrollment periods.

As with River School, both Pueblo Vista and Harvest were unable to accept all applicants, she noted.

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Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.