High schoolers who live in Crook County’s outposts spend several hours a day getting to and from school

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin

Published: December 17. 2006 5:00AM PST

PAULINA – It was pitch dark at 6 a.m. on a late November day when three teenage boys made the brisk trip from their warm cars onto the frigid school bus idling outside of Paulina Elementary School.

The Crook County High School students moved quickly toward the back of the bus and slumped down in their seats, ready for the nearly two-hour ride to Prineville.

Along the windy, icy route on the Paulina Highway, which follows the Crooked River through dramatic cliffs and rocky outcroppings, the boys perked up twice. The first time, the bus slowed and the driver, Steve Johnson, honked his horn to clear a herd of elk that had emerged in the dim glow of the headlights. On the second, they switched buses in Post and two more students climbed aboard.

Every day, a handful of students at Crook County High School spend up to four hours behind the wheel of a car or riding the bus to and from school. It is a lifestyle that makes it difficult to participate in extracurricular activities and spend time with friends. And it takes a dedication that many parents and students in larger towns would find surprising.

“There’s not a lot more remote places in the state, or in the lower 48 for that matter,” said Jim Golden, principal of Crook County High School. “We’re on the edge of a void here – there’s not many towns to the east of us.”

Driving toward Post and Paulina, the scenery quickly gives way to vast, juniper-covered hills that evoke the Old West. In the winter, temperatures can plummet overnight – on a recent morning, Johnson said, the thermometer registered at minus 17 degrees when he started his bus in the early morning.

Prineville is the only incorporated town in Crook County. While places such as Paulina and Powell Butte have their own elementary schools – in Paulina, it’s a small schoolhouse serving kindergartners through eighth-graders – all high school-age children in the approximately 3,000-square-mile county must commute to Prineville.

Golden estimated that about 5 percent of Crook County High School students live 20 miles or more from school.

“There isn’t an option if kids want a social atmosphere as part of their education and they want to compete in sports,” Golden said.

Currently, Golden said he does not know of any families in Paulina home-schooling their children. Many of the long-distance students decide to stay in Prineville with family or friends on some school nights.

Vivian Stock, Crook County High School’s registrar, has boarded about five students at her home in the last several years so that they could participate in sports or the school’s drama program.

“It’s amazing what they go through to get to school every day,” Stock said.
Extracurricular options

Selina Wiersma, 15, is usually one of those riding the bus to and from Paulina Elementary School each weekday. She said she gets up at 4 a.m. to make it from her home about 20 miles east of Paulina to the bus stop on time.

“It’s tiring, and I wish I lived closer to town ’cause you don’t get to spend that much time with the friends you have in town, so it’s really hard,” Selina said.

A tall, slender girl, Selina lives near the Rager Ranger Station in the Ochoco National Forest with her mother and two younger brothers. Her mother operates a day care center out of their house for the children of ranger station employees.

Right now, Selina is staying at Stock’s house during the week so she can play basketball. She usually goes home on the weekends but sometimes has practice or a game on Saturday. Last year, she said, it was difficult to do any after-school activities.

“I was involved with the choir, and that was even hard because we lived so far out we didn’t know if we could make it to concerts or rehearsals,” she said. “It is really hard, and you have to try to get gas money and stuff.”

Stock said that Selina, a sophomore, spoke to some of the high school’s counselors about wanting to play basketball this year, and they put Stock, Selina and her mother in touch. Stock’s husband, Riley Stock, is a member of the Crook County School Board.

“She’s played (basketball) before at Paulina, but she missed last year because she didn’t know something like this was available,” Stock said. “We’ve always been involved with young people and it’s just fun for us.”

When Selina stays at their house, Stock said, she is like a member of the family. They eat dinner together and play board games, or Selina works on her homework and talks to friends on the phone. Stock said she and her husband have only ever had one student boarding at a time – their own children are adults now.

Selina’s mother, Katrina Patrick, said she expects that her sons, who are 12 and 13 years old and attend Paulina Elementary, will probably live away from home part time as well when they reach high school. On the days that Selina stays in Paulina, they have to leave home at about 4:30 a.m. to get to the bus stop, especially during the winter, when weather conditions can make the roads dangerous.

“I miss her a lot when she’s gone, and it’s hard knowing that she’s got to be away in order to be able to enjoy the sports,” Patrick said. “I think it would be good if they had some kind of activity bus that would bring them back home so they had the opportunity to be at home with their families.”

Tyler McCormack, 16, knows what it is like juggling home life, school and a long commute. Tyler’s parents, Jeff and Runinda, own a cattle ranch near Brothers, about an hour from Prineville. A junior, Tyler plays three sports a year – football, wrestling and baseball – and often spends the night closer to town at a relative’s house.

Like Selina, Tyler said one of the frustrating aspects of living so far from school is finding time to spend with friends.

“It’s kind of weird ’cause people are always asking what I’m doing this weekend, like they want to hang out, but it’s kind of tough because it’s like an hour commute into town just to hang out,” he said.

Tyler said he gets up around 5:30 a.m. on school days and arrives home at about 7 p.m. when he has practice. He attended the now-closed Brothers Elementary School until eighth grade, when he switched to Crook County Middle School. His older sister used to drive them to school, and now he drives himself.

By now, he said, he is used to the amount of time he spends in the car every day, but other people are sometimes surprised.

“I think since I’ve done it forever it’s not that weird for me, but when I tell other people about it they think it’s pretty strange,” he said.

‘Great kids’

Golden, the principal, said that despite the long distances they have to travel, the students who come from smaller middle and elementary schools often have very good attendance records.

“The kids tend to be great kids. They have great work ethics and solid values system that helps them be successful. They’re resilient,” he said. “It’s neat that they’re part of our community (because) they bring diversity in terms of their lifestyle.”

He added that these students seem to be integrated into everyday school life.

“I think the kids, most of them tend to have friends and they go to dances, they’re part of the fabric of our high school,” he said. “Other than the distance, that’s the main difference, they have to travel incredible distances.”

But several students said that one of the most problematic aspects of the commute has to do with one of the most basic elements of the school day: homework.

“You don’t get that much time to work on your homework if you have any ’cause you go home and you do chores and stuff,” Selina said. It is too bumpy and dark to work on the school bus, so she usually tries to get her work done during her advisory period every day.

Chloe Thompson, 17, said the 45-minute commute from Post “wears me out.” She drives to school and has an after-school job at Barney Prine’s Steakhouse and Saloon in Prineville, which means she often does not get home until 10 p.m.

“I don’t really do homework; I do it in school or else I just don’t do it,” said Chloe, who is a junior. She, too, often stays in Prineville during the week with a family friend.

Tyler said that he also has trouble making time for homework, but “I find ways to do it.”

His parents are used to the situation – they both boarded in Prineville while attending Crook County High School as teenagers. His father, Jeff, lived on the family ranch in Bear Creek, and his mother, Runinda, grew up in Paulina. She is now a member of the Crook County School Board. Three out of his four grandparents also attended Crook County High School.

“I guess it’s probably not as hard as it would be for some parents because we lived through that as high school students too, but we miss him, although with sports and stuff we get in to see him quite a bit,” said Runinda McCormack.

Tyler said that someday he hopes to run the ranch, where the McCormacks raise 1,000 head of cattle.

“I want to get out and do some stuff for myself for a little while, but I’ll probably get (back) out there when it’s all said and done,” he said.

School-age population dwindling

Matt Kutcher, transportation director for the Crook County School District, said that a single round trip from Paulina to Prineville – factoring in the bus and driver – costs the school district about $200. With 172 days in the school year, that is about $34,400 a year, out of a total transportation budget of about $1.2 million.

Kutcher said there are usually between five and seven students on the bus, which is a full-length, yellow Blue Bird in service since 1989.

From Monday to Thursday one driver, Johnson, takes the high school students from Paulina to Post, drops them off at another bus that runs from Post to Prineville, and then returns to Paulina with elementary school students. On Fridays, when there is no school at Paulina Elementary, Johnson drives all the way from Paulina to Prineville, picking up a few students along the way.

Johnson said he has been driving for Crook County since 1979 and has lived in Paulina since 1956. When he first started about 35 students rode in to high school in Prineville, but in the last few years, “it’s dropped off.”

Now, there are 26 students attending Paulina Elementary School, said Jo Hoppe, who teaches kindergarten through fourth grade. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 123 people live in Paulina, with a median age of 43 years.

Hoppe described Paulina Elementary as one of a “dying breed,” and said she thinks the changing nature of the ranching business has contributed to the decline in the school-age population.

“The ranches are not family-owned anymore,” she said. “The kids aren’t staying on the ranches so they’re not resupplying the ranches with families and kids.”

Golden said there are just too few students living in these outlying areas for it to make economic sense to have another high school in the county.

“So they’re really left with one of two options, which is take the bus ride in, or home school or do some kind of virtual school program,” he said.

Last year, there was one student doing an online education program, but right now there are none, Golden added. Finding ways for students to live in town, he said, “is how the community deals with it.”

Lowell Callander, who drives the route from Post to Prineville, said that even in the five years he has worked for the school district he has noticed a drop-off in the number of students from the eastern parts of the county.

“Not many people live out in this here area; we used to pick up more, but they’re all grown up,” he said.

As the sun came up behind the westward-bound bus, striping the back window with pink bars, Callander reflected on the landscape outside.

“It’s pretty country out here – pretty desolate though,” he said. “It’s pretty country as long as you’re on a nice warm bus.”

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