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Sunol school's fight to stay independent

Book by former superintendent chronicles events in 1965 that led to today's districts

The 1960s were heady times for educator Peter Corona when he became superintendent of Sunol Glen School District at the age of 32.

School districts were unifying all over California, and a Pleasanton-Dublin district was poised to swallow tiny Sunol and its 150 students.

Corona, 87, remembers the battle against unification in his new book, "Sunol: Never Too Small to Succeed," published last fall by Xlibris as Sunol celebrated its 150th year of schooling.

The 238-page volume is also the story of education in a small town 50 years ago. For example, one day music teacher Harriett Finger wanted the piano moved onto the stage of the auditorium.

"Since we lacked enough manpower, I walked to a bar and asked for volunteers," Corona recalled in the book. "A large number of men came out and lifted the piano on the stage with ease. Later, Mrs. Finger saw me and said, 'It took a week to fumigate the auditorium.'"

This little history book is full of names and anecdotes.

"I didn't like writing in the first person, but at the same time, I had to tell the history of the people in Sunol," Corona said in a recent interview. "As communities change, people don't know what it was like."

Corona's superintendent/principal job included teaching the fifth/sixth grade combination -- plus he coached upper-grade students during recess, noon hour and physical education class. The job gave him the opportunity to be a specialist and a generalist at the same time, he said.

Corona invited old-timers to assemblies so students could learn from them. He also invited international students from UC Berkeley to share their experiences.

"While I was exposing Sunol to the outside world, Sunol was beginning to expand the outside world to me," Corona wrote.

In March 1962, he organized a trip for students in grades 4 to 8 to the university to hear President John F. Kennedy speak.

"When he was assassinated the next year, they all felt close to him and especially sad," Corona said. "They had written to the president, and he sent a letter to them with words of wisdom."

But Corona's effort to keep the tiny Sunol district independent was his proudest accomplishment.

In the early rural days, schools had been started within walking distance of the students. By 1960, other small districts had joined Sunol Glen but always with their residents in favor of the move. Now Sunol was apprehensive as it watched other small districts being unified with larger ones against their will.

"The general consensus was that the greatest loss to these small communities was the loss of their school boards, where the local citizens elected them to represent their community," wrote Corona.

In 1961, a year after Corona came to Sunol, a provision was added to California state law that unification would take place if a majority of the votes in the proposed combined school district favored it. Then the state called for an election on June 1, 1965, to unify the schools in the Amador High School District and its three feeder elementary districts -- Pleasanton, Murray (Dublin) and Sunol.

The Sunol Glen district had only 6% of the voters in the proposed unified district, so its voters could be 100% against unification and still lose.

Corona, who continued to live in Walnut Creek throughout his career, knew he had to become involved in the communities surrounding Sunol to effectively fight unification. Following his love of history, he joined the new Amador-Livermore Valley Historical Society in 1963, volunteering for committees and sharing Sunol's educational programs. He also joined the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce. And he began to attend state Board of Education meetings.

"I researched unification with the same intensity and dedication as pursuing my doctor's degree," Corona remembered in the book.

As the election grew near, Corona gave presentations, met with voters and took out a full page, non-unification ad in the Pleasanton Times.

On Election Day, all of the 271 eligible voters in Sunol turned out to vote. Corona recalled that one supporter brought ill elderly people to the polls on stretchers from the convalescent home. The final tally of 1,946 votes was 65% against unification.

Corona continued to improve education in Sunol, and the board was fully supportive as he earned his doctorate in leadership and human behavior at Cal Western in San Diego (later U.S. International University, now Alliant International University). His dissertation, "Role of the Superintendent as Perceived by Community Leaders and School Administrators," was used by California administrators for many years, he said.

Sunol education was even recognized in Europe when Corona was invited to travel with other superintendents to the Soviet Union for a month in 1966. This eye-opening trip into closed Communist countries during the Cold War is also chronicled in the book.

In 1970, Corona left Sunol to become superintendent of Benicia Unified School District, wanting to expand his experience to the high school level. He spent 47 years as a superintendent in districts throughout the state and credits the skills he learned in Sunol with being able to save four elementary districts in Southern California.

"Sunol: Never Too Small to Succeed" has been translated into foreign languages including Chinese, Russian, Italian and Swedish, Corona said.

Corona also wrote a book called "Little Italy, the Way It Was," about growing up in San Diego's Little Italy when the men were mainly commercial fishermen. He donates proceeds from his books to local causes, and he noted that "Little Italy" helped pay off its church's debt.

"My parents were born in Italy, and I married an Italian girl I met at UC Berkeley," Corona said.

He credits Yolanda, his wife of 61 years, for keeping the home fires burning while he pursued his career. She taught elementary school for many decades in Mt. Diablo Unified School District, where she still works as a substitute teacher. He also has resumed teaching, a physical fitness class at the emeritus college at Diablo Valley College.

"Together we have over 115 years in education," Corona said with a laugh.

Sunol Glen became its own unified school district in 1987. Dublin became unified in 1988 and Pleasanton in 1989. None of them would exist if the election of 1965 had passed the Amador Unified School District.

"I never saw it as an adversarial issue," Corona said. "I just wanted to save Sunol is all."

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