FORESTVILLE, Calif. - Graduation had special significance Thursday evening in the Sonoma County town of Forestville.
After almost 60 years, the class of 2021 at El Molino High School is set to be its last.
The local school board voted in March to close the beloved campus permanently, due to declining enrollment and budget shortfalls.
As 120 seniors strode onto the Lions' football field, the decision hung over them and cheering families.
"It's bittersweet, I've got a son who is part of this class," said El Molino Principal Matt Dunkle.
He has tried to keep the commencement focus on the graduates and their accomplishments.
But Dunkle admits younger students are dismayed they will not walk where their siblings and other generations of family did.
"It's a sad time for those students but they too are El Molino and they'll create their own path in the El Molino way wherever they are," said Dunkle.
Their destination is rival Analy High School in Sebastopol, seven miles away.
It is an even older campus with a bigger student population.
The El Molino students are to merge with Analy, in a re-branded school that will eventually have a new name, colors, and mascot.
"We have 550 kids here, but there will be 1700 combined, and there is not enough room," said El Molino school librarian Julie McClelland.
She notes El Molino fills a unique niche, drawing students not only from Forestville but small rural communities across west Sonoma County.
"What's at stake is we really know our kids," said McClelland, "and to have those kids pushed into a large school, they are just going to get lost."
One of the 2021 graduates served as a student representative on the school board for two years.
"It definitely feels a little more profound knowing we are the last class," said Jeanne Broome, who will study political science at U.C. Santa Barbara.
Broome participated in closure discussions, consistently arguing for more time and community input on El Molino's demise.
"But it's different on Zoom," said Broome, "and It was seemed easier to make this decision during the pandemic when people have more of a challenge rallying together."
Not only was El Molino shut down by Covid, but also a string of natural disasters and a strike during the past four years.
Parents are disappointed student resilience wasn't rewarded.
"These kids are losing the culture and that's sad," said parent Mark Aldridge from El Molino's Class of 1987.
Aldridge is also a deputy sheriff who has served as El Molino's School Resource Officer and knows the teenagers well.
"After floods, the pandemic, evacuation from multiple wildfires, this decision could have been put off for one more year to allow for a better conversation," said Aldridge.
Multiple challenges have been mounted by families who oppose the closure, including a lawsuit and a recall against some of the board members.
As the 2021 Lions move on, they hope their roars of excitement, tossing their mortarboards, won't actually be the last.
"It's tragic that a school had to be a victim," said Broome, "and help should have been there."
Principal Dunkle took a more philosophical view.
"The physical structure may not be here, but we'll always be El Molino, it's the people, no matter where we are."