John Holder was present for the creation of a north Napa grade school more than half a century ago. On Tuesday, he returned to celebrate its second life – with his daughter, principal at the campus he once led, by his side.

Gone were the humble cluster of classrooms, the weedy back lot, the yellow jacket-ridden picnic tables Holder remembered from the early days of El Centro Elementary, where he had been principal on its opening in 1965. In their place was a heavily renovated Willow Elementary School, where educators celebrated its first year of classes following El Centro’s merger with Salvador Elementary in 2018.

As students guided parents and spectators around the El Centro Avenue campus – past the shiny green-and-tan buildings, into the student library, through the music room with its 31 keyboards – Holder, now 84 and retired, compared his experiences leading a built-from-scratch school with the enlarged, renewed campus overseen by Pam Perkins, his daughter and the Willow school’s first principal.

“It was a skeleton of a school, six classrooms and a kindergarten,” remembered Holder, El Centro’s principal for its first 15 years. “My first year, they were still building the offices – the secretary and I were in the same office, which was also the teachers’ break room. In a way, it was like camping out.”

“Times have really changed,” the father said. “I told Pam it doesn’t look like an elementary school, it looks like a middle school or high school. It’s such a great place.”

Tuesday’s celebration also was a time of memories for Perkins, a small girl during the El Centro campus’ earliest years. While young Pam attended Northwood Elementary, the El Centro school was a place of playtimes and fun for her – including a spaceship-styled structure locals called the Rocket.

“It was a fun and exciting climbing structure, fun and dangerous – people called it the Kiddie Killer!” the 55-year-old Perkins recalled, laughing.

Willow Elementary’s formal coming-out party came near the end of its first school year, a period marked by continuing site work amid classes for more than 300 children from transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. While the campus opened on schedule Aug. 15, landscaping and other work continued into December.

Though based on a mid-1960s campus, the Willow school grounds bear the stamp of newness after the construction of new classroom buildings and fresh landscaping.

The project added modular units for classes and a cafeteria, and playgrounds and athletic fields were built especially for the combined school, according to Mike Pearson, facilities director for the Napa Valley Unified School District. In addition, El Centro’s former multi-use room was refashioned into Willow’s library and computer lab.

Before an audience of more than 100 people, Perkins emphasized the goal of making children and parents of both former schools equally invested in making the new, shared campus friendly to all.

“We talked about it not being us or them, or about who this school belongs to,” she said of the former Salvador and El Centro children now studying side by side. “We wanted this to be a school we built together, where we made new traditions together.”

The Napa Valley Unified School District announced plans for a grade-school merger at the El Centro Elementary site in 2015, citing a fall-off in enrollment. In 2018, Perkins, who had been Salvador’s principal since 2011, announced new colors of willow green and copper and a new mascot – the Owl – for the combined school.

“The acronym of Willow Elementary is ‘we,’” she said about the decision to forge a new identity. “It’s not us, it’s not them, it’s ‘we,’ together.”

With the consolidation of two schools on the former El Centro campus, Napa Valley Unified is refashioning the Salvador site on Salvador Avenue into a new home for River School, a middle school currently sharing a campus with Harvest Middle School on Old Sonoma Road. A Salvador Avenue campus for 530 middle schoolers originally was scheduled to debut this August, but construction delays led the district to postpone the opening.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.