Nevada's one room schools

Frenchy Montero doesn't want to hear the despair of American educators, parents and lawmakers about the state of the nation's schools.

Falling test scores, dropouts, graduates who can't read. Job applicants who lack basic skills. Discipline nightmares. Armed guards in the halls.

That's not the kind of education Montero wants for his grandson - which is why he and his son Glynn will do nearly anything to keep open the Leonard Creek School on their family ranch.

Located 20 miles from a paved road, Leonard Creek School has five students, one teacher and two rooms, all within shouting distance of the family home.

It is one of 15 tiny elementary schools in Nevada, each with one or two rooms and a handful of pupils. They are a throwback to a bygone era of education in America, but one that parents, teachers and educators say works so well that one-room schools will never disappear.

"I went to school here," said Montero, looking across the remote ranch owned by his family since nearly the turn of the century. "My sons went to school here, and my grandchildren will too."

His grandson, Trenten, is one of the five students at Leonard Creek School now, and his granddaughter will be old enough in a couple of years. Montero makes sure there will be enough students.

"When he gets short of kids, he hires ranch hands with kids," said Ron Mullanix, Humboldt County's rural schools principal.

Leonard Creek has had a school since 1926. When the old one-room building was condemned because it has no bathroom, the family spent nearly $40,000 to buy a two-room mobile classroom, which sits just 25 yards from the family ranchhouse.

Mullanix says Montero's faith in the small school is justified.

"I've got kids," the principal said. "I'd send them to any of these schools so fast."

He and the teachers in Nevada's one- and two-room schools say test scores will bear out their faith. There are seldom serious discipline problems. Older students help the younger ones learn. When they go to high school, they score higher on standard tests.

"They blow the tops off test scores," said Mullanix.

Parents and the community are involved with the schools - and not just to complain. Teachers say community and parental support is excellent.

In return, the teachers are involved in the communities. Often they know the children even before they start school.

In short, these schools work.

The problem is they're expensive. The state guarantees about $4,000 per student - half that for each kindergarten student. But when salary and benefits are added in, each teacher costs a school district about $50,000. And that doesn't take into account the cost of heating, supplying and maintaining the school itself, which is significantly lower per classroom for a large school than one with just two or three rooms.

"You can do the math," Humboldt Superintendent Tony Wiggins said. "When you have a school like Jackson Mountain with two and a half students, you get a pretty dramatic per pupil cost."

He and Elko Superintendent Marcia Bandera say those tiny schools remain in existence primarily because of where they are - in some of the state's most remote communities along the Oregon, Idaho and Utah borders.

Leonard Creek, with just five students, is more than 20 miles off State Route 140 on a gravel road. Humboldt's Denio school, with 10 students, and Jarbidge in Elko, listed as having seven pupils, are each more than 100 miles from their respective county seats on less than perfect roads.

"Especially in winter, it just wouldn't be practical to make those kids get on buses every day," said Bandera.

"They're expensive. On the other hand, many of the people out there have been paying taxes for a very, very long time and their children, grandchildren, need that service."

Money aside, she says Nevada's tiniest schools deserve to survive because of the great job they do. What those schools do and how they do it, she said, needs to be kept alive and brought back into urban schools - not eliminated.

"There are a lot of things we can learn from these little schools," she said.

Consolidation is always a topic of discussion, Wiggins admitted, but the county is dedicated to maintaining its small schools system. "That's what we're about."

Small-town schools are more than desks and books. They are often the center of the community.

"These schools are the heart of most little communities and, within reason, we try to keep that heart beating," Wiggins said.

In Nevada, most of the students in tiny schools are from ranching families. They are third- and fourth-generation Nevadans, many hoping to return and raise their own children where they grew up.

Linda Bunch grew up on a ranch in Lee, south of Elko. She returned to teach in a small town. She has been at Independence Valley near Tuscarora, north of Elko, for 25 years.

"So much of how I do things is based on how I was taught," she said.

Cheryl Turner, who has a school of eight students at Mound Valley near Jiggs, also south of Elko, has a similar story.

"I grew up on a ranch. My dad was raised here and I always wanted to teach in a one-room school." She's been doing just that for 14 years at Mound Valley.

Louise Garcia has been at Jackson Mountain, which has two students and a kindergartner this year, for more than a decade.

Both Wiggins and Bandera said one reason the small schools work so well is the caliber of their teachers.

"These teachers, all of them, could teach anywhere they want," said Wiggins.

Bandera said it isn't just the students who have to be more independent but the teachers as well. No matter what the problem, they seem to be able to handle it.

"They do an awesome job," she said.


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