Photos and video: Andrew Goff
At 11:20 Monday morning, roughly 300 Eureka High School students walked out of class and marched up the block to the district administration building, where they proceeded to shout chants and hold up banners in support of a departed administrator.
“We want Ed! We want Ed! We want Ed!” the students chanted in unison.
By all accounts, Ed Sonia forged deep personal bonds with many students in his role as Eureka City Schools athletic director, overseeing more than 70 coaches, 40 volunteers and about 40 percent of the student bodies at Eureka High, Winship Middle School and Zane Middle School. He was also serving as an assistant principal at Eureka High, and in a phone conversation this afternoon he said he was simply spread too thin.
“We had a couple of administrators leave — there’s been a lot of movement [among] the admin team at Eureka High, and I took on a lot of the workload,” Sonia said.
He added that he had informed Interim Eureka High School Principal Rob Standish and other administrators about his dissatisfaction.
”I’d gone in to my administration before and told them I was overloaded,” he said. “My principal knew that this was coming to a head. I could only take so much.”
While the administration may not have been surprised at Sonia’s move, the students who walked out today didn’t see it coming.
“We are all very heartbroken,” Eureka High senior Moriah Bowles told the Outpost during today’s protest. “Ed was not only a member of our staff but he was a friend. He was a very close friend.”
Bowles and other students said this is just the latest development in a larger trend of educators and administrators leaving the district for one reason or another. Former teacher and athletic director Kristina Christiansen, for example, stepped down under duress last year after more than two decades at Eureka High. She is now suing Eureka City Schools for harassment, a hostile work environment, sexual discrimination and retaliation.
Other administrators, including former assistant principal Angela Shull and former Eureka High principal Jennifer Johnson, recently left
the district Eureka High in favor of other jobs in the area.
“We’ve already had two athletic directors leave — and coaches. We’ve had so many coaches leave because of the treatment,” Bowles said. “And we’re tired of it.”
Leah Gee, a former district employee and mother of a Eureka High student, attended today’s protest, and she said these departures are symptomatic of larger problems in the district.
“We’re not losing people because of the teacher and educator crisis or them burning out on the job,” Gee said. “They’re burning out on the district.”
She blames Superintendent Fred Van Vleck and the district’s board of trustees, which is charged with overseeing him.
“Fred Van Vleck needs to go,” Gee said. “Nobody is checking him. There’s no checks and balances.”
The protesting students swarmed the sidewalk outside the administration building. Several held brightly colored protest signs on butcher paper while others clutched smaller signs hand-lettered on colorful office sheets.
“What is the common denom?” one sign read.
“Why 2 athletic directors in 1 year?” another asked.
Yet another read, “Why are good people leaving our district?”
Other messages included, “When is enough?” “Fix our environment” and “Take responsibility for your actions.”
The Outpost walked into the administration office during the protest in search of Van Vleck, but we were told by front office staff that he was not available at the time. When we reached out later via email he referred us to Standish, who we spoke to on the phone this afternoon.
“I can say that although I’m proud of the passion our students have for educators, Mr. Sonia resigned of his own accord,” Standish said. “I’ll be acting as interim athletic director as we search for a replacement, and I’ll be doing my best to make sure the sports programs can continue uninterrupted with the help of our amazing coaches and staff.”
Asked about the larger trend of departures from the district, Standish said, “I really can’t speculate on that.”
At the protest, Eureka High senior Sidney Madsen said she worked directly with Sonia in her role on the Student Advisory Council, which helps to make decisions for the Humboldt-Del Norte (HDN) High School Sports League.
“And it really hurt that he had to resign because I know that he cares so, so much for his students,” Madsen said. “He would always pull me aside; he would always make a point every single day or every other day to tell me, like, how good I’m doing and how much I mean to him.”
Today’s demonstration was a way to return the favor, she said.
“He cared so much about these kids and his job. Getting no support from the D.O. [district office] really took a toll on him.”
Fellow senior Amaya Gee (Leah Gee’s daughter) agreed, saying Sonia was just “a really cool dude.”
“We just bonded, I guess,” Gee said. She, too, brought up the departure of numerous coaches and teachers from the district. “And I think this last one really impacted everybody because Ed cared so much about everybody. I think he impacted not only just us but also the parents. He did a lot for our school. I don’t think [the administration] knew how much Ed impacted our school and how much he did for us.”
A few adults stood across the street watching the protest. One, licensed psychologist Michael Morris, said he’d been working with Sonia to incorporate sports psychology into Eureka High’s sports programs.
“Ed just gets it, that we’re here to mentor these young people, that it’s beyond the sport,” Morris said. “These sports are more vehicles for mentoring young people to become these positive members of our society, and he got that. It’s just, it’s such a big loss not to have him anymore. I’m just heartbroken.”
Will Zerlang, a local contractor and parent of an EHS student, said he stepped in to become the coach of the school’s cross country team this year, and he agreed that this is a big deal.
“Losing Ed obviously is a huge loss for the students because the students love Ed,” Zerlang said. The EHS cross-country won the HDN championship this past weekend, after the squad learned of Sonia’s departure, and Zerlang said they ran for him. He also said Sonia was a huge help to him in his first year of coaching, and his sudden absence complicates the team’s future.
“On the 19th we’re supposed to go take three vans down and rent six hotel rooms [for a competition],” Zerlang said. “Ed was the one who was going to make that happen for me. Now I’ve got to figure out how to [do it].”
Standish sought to reassure people who may be concerned.
“I very much want the public to know that we’re going to continue to work very hard to make sure students have access to athletic endeavors and we’ll support them through that,” he said.
As fall sports come to an end and spring sports ramp up, this is a very busy time for athletics, and Standish said he’s had an “an overwhelming amount of support from coaches as we work through and make sure these programs continue. That’s really what’s important to me right now, keeping them taken care of.”
About 20 minutes into the protest, after the students had marched around the block, they revived their chants of “We want Ed!” A few minutes later, they changed the refrain to “No more Fred! No more Fred! No more Fred!”
On Friday, Standish announced Sonia’s departure with an all-EHS-staff email that began with this:
I am writing today to announce our Athletic Director and Assisant [sic] Principal Ed Sonia has let me know he no longer has the passion to finish the school year in this postion [sic] and has resigned effective immediatly [sic]. This is unfortuante [sic], but we are appreciative of the work Ed has done.
Sonia said the claim that he has lost his passion is patently false.
“I never said that,” he told the Outpost. “Every person on that campus knows that’s not true. That’s the opposite of me. My passion for those kids and that department … .” He paused, trying to find the words. “It’s extensive, to say the least.”
Sonia said he didn’t work for the district long enough to address the larger trend of departures, but he feels today’s protest wasn’t all about him
“I think this is much bigger than myself,” he said. “This is maybe the tipping point, I get that. It just happens to be this way because of how I connect with my kids. It just shows I poured my heart into our kids and my programs. It feels good to see it didn’t go unnoticed by the people who mean the most.”
Namely, the students. Below are more photos from today’s protest.
(Click photos to enlarge)