Bear River at 30: South Nevada County high school reflects on past, looks toward future |

Bear River at 30: South Nevada County high school reflects on past, looks toward future

Emily Lavin
Staff Writer
Megan Billingham, Bear River High School's 2016 valedictorian, paints a mural entitled "Theatre through the Stages" on a campus wall on April 26.
Laura Mahaffy/ | The Union

Know & Go

What: Bear River High School 30th anniversary

When: 6 p.m. April 30

Where: Bear River High School, 11130 Magnolia Road, Grass Valley

Tickets: $12 or two for $20, at the door; cash or check accepted

More info:

Bear River High School opened its doors in the fall of 1986; the newly-constructed school in south county was meant to ease overcrowding at Nevada Union High School, which had grown to more than 3,000 students.

When the around 500 freshman, sophomores and juniors showed up at Bear River on that first day of classes, the school had a vision for those freshly-minted Bruins, said Richard Werntz, the school’s founding principal — a well-rounded program that included strong academics, robust arts opportunities and successful athletics.

“We were trying to develop multi-dimensional kids that took advantage of opportunities to participate in activities, to learn leadership skills and to work as a team, and make that transfer into the classroom, too,” said Werntz, who served as the school’s principal for 17 years.

On Saturday, Bear River will welcome current and former staff and students, as well as community members, onto campus to celebrate the school’s 30th anniversary. The event will begin at 6 p.m. with student-led campus tours, followed at 7 p.m. by a short program featuring speeches and performances from current and founding staff members and students. Dessert will also be served.

“We were trying to develop multi-dimensional kids that took advantage of opportunities to participate in activities, to learn leadership skills and to work as a team, and make that transfer into the classroom, too.”Richard Werntzfounding principal of Bear River High School

Tickets are $12, or two for $20, and can be purchased with cash or check at the door. For more information or to RSVP, visit

Though three decades have passed, the school continues to build on its original student-centered focus, said Amy Besler, the school’s current principal.

“The vision is creating the school that no one ever wants to leave,” Besler said. “That’s the staff, it’s the kids, it’s the families, that everyone just feels really great about being here and that there’s no other place they’d rather be.”

However, if today’s students were to step back in time to 1986, they might not recognize their current campus. The school looked much different during its inaugural years, said those who were around for its inception.

“I remember coming down that first week, a couple of days before school opened, and thinking, there’s no way this school will open,” said Duane Zauner, who teaches math and physical education at Bear River, and is the only teacher who has been on staff for all 30 years. “They were still building, doing a lot of things.”

But it did open as scheduled, though the school operated with minimal funding and facilities during those first years, Werntz said. There was no gym, no library and no theater on campus. There were no sports fields; Bear River athletic events were played at Nevada Union. The Junior Varsity basketball team practiced in the school’s multipurpose room, with portable hoops, Werntz said, and Zauner remembered converting an empty classroom into a weight room, and having students jump rope in the hallway during their P.E. class.

“This school really was a baby with growing pains and issues, it took a long time to get everything together,” Werntz said.

And not all of the school’s students were thrilled about being there, he remembered — particularly not the juniors, who had developed a routine at Nevada Union.

“Over a period of time I interviewed every single student who was going to Bear River, talked to them, let them share their concerns and, for some of them, their anger,” Werntz said.

However, that uncertainty among the student body eventually gave way to excitement — that’s the primary emotion Nanci Smith remembers about making the transition from Nevada Union to Bear River.

Smith, who was a member of Bear River’s second graduating class and now teaches special education at the school, remembered a group of about 15 students being involved in helping to choose the school’s mascot and colors.

“With the size of Nevada Union at the time, being able to break that off and not be in that huge school was really exciting,” Smith said. “Having a brand new building, brand new stuff, everything was ground breaking.”

Both Smith and Zauner said the school’s strength was and continues to be its family-like atmosphere.

“I think there’s a buy-in from the students, a buy-in from the staff and there’s a buy-in in the community,” Zauner said.

That’s something Besler has continued to build upon during her first year as principal; the former assistant principal at Colfax High School was hired by the district last summer to replace Jim Nieto, who had served as principal at Bear River since 2006.

Over the last 30 years, Besler said, the school as established the stand-out programs in academics, the performing arts, athletics and agriculture that were part of the original vision for the school.

Still, the school continues to face challenges, Besler said — primarily a steady decline in enrollment. That’s something that’s been a trend throughout the county over the past decade, though Besler noted the school’s current enrollment of about 630 students is about 30 students more than was predicted at the start of the school year.

There can be a pressure to get students in the door to combat an enrollment decline, Besler said.

But at the same time, “it also forces us to really analyze what we’re doing and evaluate where we stand and where we need to improve and I think that’s always a good thing,” Besler said. “If we are just kind of resting on our laurels because kids are just coming and it’s not a problem, we’re not going to be improving like we should be.”

One of Besler’s focuses during her first year has been to help Bear River’s staff, students and programs speak for themselves. She’s made an effort to better communicate the school’s direction and student achievements both within the school and to the outside community, which includes an increased emphasis on social media and the school’s website.

“I’m really wanting people to be empowered with knowledge so when they’re having those conversations in the grocery store, they can let people really know what’s going on at Bear River,” she said.

She said the school is focused on furthering opportunities for its students, including adding a new pathway in computer science, as well as classes in digital media arts beginning in the 2016 school year. Over the past year, staff has also focused on revamping enrichment and academic intervention offerings for students.

“We want to make sure that we’re preparing our kids for the reality of their future and the demands of life after high school, college and career,” Besler said.

And the school wants to continue to evolve while embracing its roots, Besler said.

“We’re no longer the new school, we’re no longer the up-and-coming program,” Besler said. “We kind of have a little bit more history of our own, and we’re at the point of really wanting to build on that sense of tradition.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email or call 530-477-4230.

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