Rural Ariz. school evokes old-frontier spirit

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SUNIZONA, Ariz. (AP) — The eighth-grade class at Ash Creek School is sweating over the answers on a pre-algebra worksheet that is due before lunch. The teacher, Laura Lind, turns her attention to the problems.

"Are you sure that's right?" Lind asks Brandon Martinez, pointing to his paper. "Show me how you got there."

Brandon shifts in his seat and glances at another student. He starts to explain his work, then realizes his mistake and corrects it, earning a nod from Lind. Satisfied, he finishes the assignment, then announces that he is ready for the quiz. The eighth-grade class is hungry and does not want to be late for lunch.

Lind checks the time and agrees. Brandon turns pages in the math book, smooths out a sheet of paper and grasps his pen.

Such eagerness to take a quiz might irk the other eighth- graders anywhere else, but at Ash Creek School, Brandon is the eighth-grade class. The other five students in Lind's classroom are a mix of sixth- and seventh-graders and together represent a little over one-third of the entire student body of 17.

Ash Creek School, a green stamp of a campus in the bleached high desert of Cochise County, is as close to the picture of a one-room frontier schoolhouse that remains in Arizona. Lind, one of three teachers, is not far from a modern incarnation of the old West schoolmarm.

In some ways, the school has changed little since the first bell rang 102 years ago in a single room of a white building, the structure that now houses the library. Teachers still work with more than one grade level in the same room. The small staff does the work of a large one. A bad flu bug can empty the place.

But the principal and teachers say they try to use the small enrollment and remote location to their advantage. They can give each student attention. They chase grants that allow them to take field trips to Phoenix or invite artists to work with the children. They bought microscopes and created a science lab and plan to equip the older kids with laptops.

By standard measures, the school struggles at times. Yet the school won a statewide online-math competition earlier this year and finished ninth in the national competition, placing it in the top 3 percent of schools that use the Web-based program.

"You do have to individualize the teaching," said Lind, whose own children attended the school during the 25 years she has taught there. "It takes higher levels of concentration for us. But they're good kids. Very curious. One of the things I like most is that I really get to know them."

"Most of our kids are local," said Sue Shepard, a veteran teacher who took over as principal three years ago. "We had 21 at the start of the year, but we lost four. It's a tough economy around here these days. The parents have to go where the jobs are."

Ash Creek School opened in 1910, when the work was more stable. The students were children of farmers, ranchers, a few miners. Loggers were cutting timber for the bigger mines near Bisbee. A string of one-room schools opened across the county.

In the early years, the school taught students ranging in age from 6 to 21, all in the little building along a rural road cutting across a flat stretch of Sulphur Springs Valley. A roll from 1913 counted 32 students, including four from the Clapps family and four from the Potter family. The oldest was 20, listed as Mrs. Mattie Kine.

Almost as fast as the one-room schools opened across rural Arizona, they began to close. A mine would shut down, and its workers would move away. Smaller farms gave way to larger operations, spreading the family homes farther apart. Schools consolidated as towns and cities grew, drawing students who could now ride modern buses on paved roads.

Ash Creek endured, in part because of its location at least 45 minutes from towns with larger schools, such as Willcox or Douglas. Perhaps more important, the school is governed by a board that oversees exactly one school, and that board, backed by the community, has stubbornly preserved its existence.

The original one-room schoolhouse now sits amid what has become a little campus, with an administration building, several classrooms and a gymnasium, which also houses the lunchroom, the computer and science labs and three more classrooms.

In a classroom at the far corner of the gymnasium building, Jane Corley assembles her four students, the school's kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes. Ash Creek is a long way from anywhere she has taught in the past, both in distance and in size.

Corley runs her classroom as if its desks were filled, determined not to skimp on the experience. She assigns each student daily tasks, and, like the adults, the children wear multiple hats.

Filling a teaching position at Ash Creek is not easy. A teacher willing to settle in the sticks is "as rare as hen's teeth," said Marvick, the middle-grades teacher.

In separate conversations, all the teachers mention one of the things that hasn't changed about teaching in a town like Sunizona: Everybody knows the teacher.

"In a small community, you have to be careful," Lind said. "You're up on a pedestal. You have a reputation you want to protect."

With the aromas of lunch beginning to beckon through the vents of the middle-grades classroom, Marvick has an announcement. The school has received a grant that will allow the students to plant a community garden in the front corner of the campus.

"We'll be able to provide food for the cafeteria and teach members of the community more about growing their own vegetables," Marvick says. "It's going to be a wonderful opportunity."

Ash Creek operates on a budget that can barely afford the shoestrings to call it meager, much less a gardening project, so the principal and teachers have become experts at making the most of existing resources and finding more.

"I have a whole file of the grants we're either working on or waiting to hear about," Shepard said. "We have to do whatever we can to help the kids."

Grants have helped the school hone its focus on the arts as a teaching tool across a range of subjects. Artists teach, demonstrate and advise, helping students create plays or tell stories, work they share with the community.

Math has proved difficult for Ash Creek students when measured by standardized tests. While as many as 70 percent of students pass the AIMS test in reading and almost as many in writing, the pass rate for math has fallen as low as 9 percent.

The school earned a "D'' in its first evaluation by the state Education Department, which previously had not graded small schools. Several nearby schools received similarly low marks.

Nevertheless, the school's older students finished first earlier this year in a statewide online-math competition sponsored by the Web-based program Sumdog. Among schools that use the program nationally, Ash Creek finished ninth.

For Shepard, a small school opens the door to what she calls teaching moments, opportunities to set aside a lesson plan and take more time on a discussion that has engaged students or take advantage of something that captures the attention and the imagination -- a swarm of cicadas or, perhaps, a snake.

"We've been talking about bugs in science," Marvick said. "I found some butterfly larvae in my garden and brought them in. They're emerging today, so today, we're all about butterflies. I had a whole other plan, but when you have a moment like this, you don't let it pass by."

All of which is not to say that the school would not like to see its numbers increase. It would. And it is.

Near the end of a recent day, the front office is abuzz with news that a new student will begin classes soon, raising the daily count from 17 to 18 students. A mother who had been homeschooling her 7-year-old daughter had apparently seen a flier about the school's programs and called.

Shepard and her staff talk about the logistics: A simple tweak to the school-bus route will accommodate the girl. Whose class will she join? She'll take tests, but Corley likely will see her ranks grow from four to five, news that reaches her quickly.

One more student won't exactly let Ash Creek start a sports program or fill a marching band, but for Shepard and the teachers, the new girl in some ways helps confirm their belief, their conviction, that they are succeeding.

"She chose us!" Shepard said.

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Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com

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