From the ashes of Casa Ramona in westside San Bernardino, Esther Estrada sees affordable senior housing and a small community center rising.
But first, the remains of the former school must be removed.
A heaping pile of contaminated debris is all that’s left of the historic Mediterranean-style building after it was leveled in the wake of a 2020 fire that tore through the boarded-up and abandoned structure on West Seventh Street.
Estrada, a former San Bernardino City Council member who attended Ramona School in the 1940s and has served as executive director of Casa Ramona for decades, thought years would pass before a costly cleanup effort could begin.
“I knew this was not going to be easy,” she said recently, “but we were going to punch away at it.”
Last month, however, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control awarded Casa Ramona $4.9 million in grant funding to remove the pile of ashes, paving the way for new uses on the property.
“Ramona was my elementary school, and I loved my school, loved my neighbors,” Estrada said. “And being a councilwoman in the area, it’s very, very tough. Tough because I continue to see that pile of debris there.”
Ramona School was built for about $110,000 and opened with 802 students on Nov. 10, 1926.
Casa Ramona ultimately purchased the site and ran child development services, senior citizen programs and training out of the former San Bernardino school district building.
In a 2007 report, the city deemed the westside site historic.
“For over 50 years, there’ve been concerted efforts to try to kill the westside neighborhood,” Councilman Theodore Sanchez, who represents the area now, said in a phone interview, “but we’re still here. And with Esther’s efforts, she secured the money to transform the site into another mecca of community service and a pillar that will continue to hold up our westside San Bernardino neighborhoods.”
In an email, Sanford Nax, a spokesman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said Casa Ramona’s proposal stood out among grant applicants because of the building’s importance to the surrounding community.
“It once was a hub for elementary school children, then went vacant for a number of years before it was destroyed by fire, leaving behind debris that contaminated the soil,” Nax wrote. “Under the proposal, it will again be a hub for residents of the disadvantaged neighborhood in which it sits.”
Headquartered in a historically vulnerable and disadvantaged area, Nax said the West Seventh Street property is among the most environmentally burdened in the state.
Casa Ramona’s pitch to reuse the site, he added, “is intended to fulfill critical needs of the community, including low-income senior housing and a community center to provide job training, educational programs, medical and behavioral health services, and space for nonprofit and municipal uses.”
Cleanup activities are expected to begin early next year.
In the interim, Casa Ramona will continue operating out of Nunez Park, where the organization has served children since the West Seventh Street building was razed following the 2020 fire.
Estrada and others also will spend the next several months advising local groups about the forthcoming cleanup.
“Our plan is to go forward,” Estrada said, “and get the site cleaned up and revitalize that land.”