By Carlos N. Olvera
Many remember hearing the name Serra School, but where was it, and when?
In the past, this column has made mention of San Juan By-the-Sea, founded in 1887, the area we now refer to as Doheny Village. This is where the Serra School story begins. It all started with the beachside train station on Victoria prompting the development of the small San Juan By-the-Sea community. After having been a boom town for only about two years, San Juan By-the-Sea failed and the train stop became known as “Serra.” By that time the small community was in need of a “local” school. And it happened on August 17, 1908, when Serra School was founded.
This new school/school district was formed near the beach, below San Juan Capistrano. A vacant 30-foot by 32-foot private residential house on Domingo Avenue, along with lots 8, 9 and 10, were fitted up as a schoolhouse and campus. If it were not for the flag, you would drive right past it. On opening day, 11 students showed up, mostly from the San Juan School, with teacher Miss Della Wright, a Santa Ana High School graduate of the class of 1901.
In 1921 the Orange County Grand Jury criticized the school, suggesting it be abandoned and the 12 students transported to Capistrano by bus. This prompted the trustees to seek bids for a new school.
Then in 1926, Ole Hansen of San Clemente offered $25,000 to build a school in San Clemente. Instead, in 1929, Serra School District announced the future construction of a new school in Capistrano Beach for $28,000 to be designed by architect Fay Spangler—architect of the still-standing Dana Point Blue Lantern Fountain Lunch building. This new school was of Spanish architecture with a tile roof and consisted of 13 rooms and two classrooms for 40 students each. The triangle-shaped land was donated by the Capistrano Beach Land Co., where the bus yard is today. The original Serra School was sold at auction to Tom S. Luoncono.
As with life, things grew and so did the school, to the point that San Clemente wanted to create a new school district in 1931. The “fight” went from the Orange County Board of Supervisors to Sacramento. There, school board members, the Chamber of Commerce and the Deputy District Attorney argued their case, based on convenience and economy. They were successful.
By 1938, Serra School was part of the Union High School District, and by 1941 it was referred to as Serra Elementary School at Doheny Park. Growth brought dissension by 1960. Petitions were circulated in an effort to dissolve the Capistrano Union High School District and form a smaller district. The goal was to build a new high school at Capistrano Palisades, which resulted in the formation of the Capistrano Beach School District. In 1963, the bonds needed for the Palisades High School did not pass.
The need for a study of effective and economical government in the Dana Point-Capistrano Beach area was obvious. Serra School hosted a community meeting called by the Dana Knolls Homeowners’ Association, the Capistrano Beach Civic Association and the Dana Point Civic Association, then led by Don Simpkin. The result was an election to approve the unification of four school districts in the area, and if passed, fill seven seats from 23 candidates.
The newly formed Capistrano Elementary School District was now looking to acquire a site for a third school in Dana Point (this would later become the campus of Dana Hills High School), and in 1965 the four districts were consolidated into the new Capistrano Unified School District. This brought another community meeting at the Serra School, only this time to discuss establishing a new city or annexing to an existing one. Capistrano Beach was being considered for annexation to San Juan Capistrano or San Clemente.
By the mid-1960s, Serra School was abandoned as a school but remained as the district administrative headquarters. The building continued to be used as a community center in 1969, but was still referred to as the Serra Elementary School. Another community meeting was called at the site, but this time it was to discuss the formation of a new city, Serra. That movement was led by the late Dr. Roger S. Sanderson who owned land in Dana Point.
The Capistrano Unified School District announced in 1971 the move of its headquarters from Serra School to the former Capistrano High School. The subsequent paving of the Serra School playground was a hot button issue when it was made into the transportation center (bus yard). In 1976, the buildings were saved from the wrecking ball and remain in use today.