One of Oregon’s smallest schools worries about its future

With both teachers leaving at year’s end, district turned over ‘every rock’ in search of replacements

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: May 12. 2007 5:00AM PST

PAULINA – The calm of a sunny afternoon lolled over the playground at the remote Paulina Elementary School earlier this week, carrying in the bubbling sounds of children talking, birds chirping – and little else.

Beyond the weather-beaten wooden fence ringing the yard, little appeared on the horizon except a long ranch building and a background of rolling buttes. In the surrounding fields, sprinklers irrigated spring-green crops.

“Days like this is what you live for here,” said Bruce Kilander, who teaches fifth through eighth grades at the school. “That’s when it’s easy. January, February, it gets old.”

Paulina Elementary is one of the smallest schools in the state, with just 22 students divided into two classrooms.

In a town as minuscule as eastern Crook County’s Paulina – which had a population of 123 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census – the school is the hub of community life. So when both teachers announced their plans to leave at the end of the year, school district administrators in Prineville were concerned about the effects on the school and the difficulty of finding replacements.

“We were turning over every rock,” Crook County Superintendent Steve Swisher said. “I have been worried, and then thinking about all of those iterations that go on: Do we find a temp? Do we transfer somebody on a temporary basis? And then housing issues, and a variety of things that go through your mind as you try to plan for that worst-case scenario.”

Luckily, Swisher said, the district has found two new teachers for next year. But with a declining student population and the troubling example of the Brothers School – which closed in 2006 because there weren’t enough students to support it – the future of Paulina Elementary is still unclear.

“In general (the small schools) are disappearing,” Swisher said. “Those remote places continue to shrink in terms of population, so that’s been sort of an ongoing path in our state for a long number of years.”

The heart of the community

The main building at the school, which dates from 1949, is the largest in the cluster of structures that makes up “downtown” Paulina.

Penny LaFavor, the director of rural schools and special education for Crook County, said the school is the geographic and cultural center of an area that stretches from Post, about 30 miles west of Paulina, to Suplee, 20 miles east of the town.

“It’s the facility that they often use for community get-togethers and functions – it’s kind of the center meeting place for folks,” LaFavor said. “Small community schools operate as that because it’s the place everyone knows how to get to, everyone knows where it’s at, (and) it’s central for all of the places that kind of draw from there.”

That means that the school’s two teachers are also key members of the neighborhood, Head Teacher Jo Hoppe said.

“To have success here, you need to be committed to being a part of the community – the ones who haven’t lasted, their life was somewhere else,” said Hoppe, who has been at the school for seven years. “They’ve had teachers here that their family was still in Prineville, so they just hurried and got here in the morning and went home in the afternoon.”

Kilander, who has taught in Paulina for two years, agreed that it is important for the teachers to be active in the area. After retiring from teaching sixth grade at Crook County Middle School, he filled in at Paulina as a substitute and then stayed on when the teacher didn’t return. But he splits his time between Redmond, where he lives with his wife, who is an assistant superintendent in the Bend-La Pine Schools, and Paulina, where he stays with relatives on a ranch during the school week.

“I don’t know how you could be successful by not being a part of it and not being part of the potlucks,” he said. “Even though I’m not here on Saturday and Sunday, sometimes I need to be because that’s the things that happen in the community – that’s expected.”

The important role the teachers play in many aspects of community life makes their simultaneous departure a rupture for the school and the town.

“They’ve done a great job out there with the kids,” LaFavor said. “They certainly will be missed.”

Hoppe said she is moving to Prineville to teach third grade at Ochoco Elementary School – the first time in her 32-year teaching career that she will teach only one grade at a time. She grew up in Nebraska, where her mother was also a country school teacher, and taught in several rural schools there before moving to Oregon to teach at Paisley. Her husband is in the U.S. Forest Service and was transferred to the Rager Ranger Station east of Paulina, which brought her to the school.

“One of my fears is that I’m so used to being by myself or one of just a few, that it’s rather scary to go to such a big school with so many teachers,” she said.

Part of the reason for the move is for her daughter, Joie, to have more access to fine arts classes and school programs. Joie, 10, is currently a fifth-grader at Paulina and will attend Crook County Middle School next year.

Hoppe said she is looking forward to teaching just one grade level where “everyone will be on the same page.”

“I haven’t had a prep period in 30 years,” she added. “That’s what I’m looking forward to – they want recess, I want a prep period.”

Kilander is planning to retire for the second time. Although he had never worked at a small school, having spent 18 years at Crook County Middle School and teaching in Gresham before that, he said it has been “a great experience.”

“I like the independence of the job, not many administrators – now some of the parents may disagree with that (and say) we need more administration,” he said.

But he added that living so far from town – about 55 miles to Prineville on the narrow, winding Paulina Highway – can be somewhat isolating. And then there’s the winter weather.

“There are days you get out here in January right after Christmas break and it’s tough – you better have snow tires, you’ve got to have a good battery, and four-wheel drive is a good thing,” he said. “I’ve been kind of an outdoor person, but I was not ready for the day-to-day wear and tear.”

Learning together

As the students prepared for a track meet last week, all the age groups mixed together. Nicole Wanous, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, raked the dirt in a makeshift long-jump pit as third-grader Chelsea Thomas, 9, practiced. Around the small gravel track, a tiny, towheaded first-grader handed off a baton to a waiting fourth-grader during a relay race.

Teaching several different grades at once is difficult, both teachers said, but it also has advantages.

At Paulina, classes often follow a model that would seem old-fashioned to parents and students at larger schools. On a recent morning, the children in Hoppe’s K-4 class worked on individual reading packets, going at their own pace and occasionally asking their teacher for help as she read one on one with some first-graders. The same system was at work during a math lesson with Kilander’s group of fifth- through eighth-grade students.

“We group according to ability – it doesn’t matter what grade you’re in,” Hoppe said. “You’re just either in the lower room or the upper room, so we don’t have a stigma about that, (and) we don’t have a stigma about special ed classes.”

Kilander said he initially thought teaching four grades at once would be “overwhelming,” but he has found the setup has many benefits.

“You can be more flexible – just because the child is chronologically at a certain age, that doesn’t mean that that’s where they are in the grade,” he said. “So you can move them right along, (or) if someone’s behind – maybe they come in as a third-grade reader and they’re in fifth grade, well you’ve got three or four years to catch them up before you even have to make a decision to retain.”

Both teachers described the school as being like a family. Because there are so few staff members – seven full-time, who share a variety of jobs – everyone has to help out with both daily work, like setting up equipment, and larger events, like the annual Christmas play.

“If we don’t all pitch in to do it, then it just doesn’t get done,” Kilander said. “When (students) do get a little bit upset with each other from time to time, it’s puzzling to staff and to parents … With a small community sometimes what happens at the dinner table spills over into the classroom.”

Several students said they have previously attended larger schools, and they prefer the small character of Paulina. Others said they are nervous about moving to the bigger environment in Prineville when they go to high school.

Madison Rose McClard-Faust, 6, attended a few weeks of first grade at Prineville’s Cecil Sly Elementary School this year before returning to Paulina.

“It was scary and I didn’t like it,” Madison said. “Some people can be a little mean and sometimes on the second recess you don’t know what building to go to.”

Madison added that she likes living in Paulina better because children have more freedom to play outside.

“I like it here,” she said. “You know, in town it’s kind of not fun ’cause you have to stay in yards, but here you don’t have to – you can have fun and play.”

Getting lost on the school campus is not a problem at Paulina, which in addition to the main building housing the gym, lunchroom and library, has two modular classrooms, a small office and a currently empty double-wide trailer that teachers can rent from the school district. Chelsea, the third-grader, said she likes attending a physically smaller school after moving from Paisley – itself very small – three years ago.

“I like it better here ’cause you had to walk, if you wanted to turn in a book at the library, you had to walk a long way just to get to the library, but here it’s right next door,” Chelsea said.

At Paulina, Chelsea shares a classroom with her younger brother Ken, a first-grader, and older brother Tim, a fourth-grader. Next year, her younger sister will be in kindergarten.

“It’s kind of fun,” she said. “I just like having my brothers in school with me, and I can’t wait until my little sister gets to be in school with me next year.”

There are a few other sibling pairs in the school, and Hoppe said having brothers and sisters in one room can be “kind of challenging.” But she added that she relies on all the students to work together and help each other learn.

“As a rule, I’ve always found that the kids (in small schools) are better disciplined – I think because they’re expected to do chores they have better work ethics,” she said. “They’re not citified – they still eat dinner with their parents at night.”

During P.E. class last week, the students worked together to set up the high jump and shouted encouragement as their classmates raced each other around the track. Ethan Cummings, 13, who is currently the school’s only eighth-grader, said he likes having more individual attention from his teacher, because it’s “easier to get your academics up.” But he said he misses the options for participating in sports that he had when he lived in Cottage Grove, where he will move back to next year.

“They have good sports things and I’m a sports fan, so I like to do good in sports,” Ethan said. “In this classroom it’s kind of lonely only having like nine kids and you can’t really have as much friends.”

Signs of the times

Hoppe said when she began teaching at Paulina seven years ago, she was one of three teachers. The year before she started, the school had about 50 students, and her first year the number was around 40.

Now the lower class has 13 students. The upper class started out the year with 12, but the number is currently down to nine.

“Is it a sign of the times? I don’t know,” Hoppe said. “We don’t see it growing at all.”

The decline in students may have to do with the changing nature of the ranching industry, both teachers said. When Hoppe asked her class whose parents work on a ranch, nine out of her 13 students raised their hands.

“A lot of the ranches around here are owned by big corporations,” Hoppe said. “People are moving to where the jobs are, and the jobs aren’t here.”

Kilander said it is difficult to support a family on many ranch jobs. But he added that his students – the older group – seem more interested in other aspects of teen and ‘tween life, even if their families continue to live on the ranches.

“They’re into the iPods and the cell phones, which don’t work out here, and you know they’re no different than town boys and girls,” he said.

LaFavor, the rural schools director for the Crook County, said the number of students has dropped off in recent years, but she noted that in the 17 years she has been with the school district the average has remained fairly steady.

“We might have 30 here one month and if the ranches aren’t doing well, we might have 20 the next – it’s kind of the nature of the work that a lot of the families do,” she said. “I’ve seen the numbers at Paulina go up and down, generally staying in the mid-20s to mid-30s. (That) seems to be the average, and a couple of years when they were up in the 40 numbers and some years when they were under 20.”

This year, for example, there is only one kindergartener, but next year the school expects an incoming kindergarten class of six.

The Brothers School had to close when its enrollment fell to only one or two students. Brothers, which used to have its own school district, merged with the Crook County School District in 2005. Right now, LaFavor said, there is one student in the area who is bused to Prineville for school.

Swisher, the superintendent, said the state funding formula amounts to about $10,000 per student for rural schools, which means that the minimum amount of students the school needs would be about 10.

“That’s about $100,000 and that could buy you one teacher and keep the lights on, so that’s about a bare minimum,” he said.

LaFavor said the school’s budget for next year is about $350,000. In general, smaller schools are less cost-effective, she said, which is one of the reasons that Paulina runs on a schedule of longer hours for four days a week, with no school on Friday.

“You reduce some of the transportation costs, some of the food costs, heating, and that kind of stuff,” she said. “You don’t have 30 kids that are similar that you can put together with one teacher, (so) you have to be a little bit more creative.”

If there are enough students, it’s possible that the Brothers School – which also had a K-8 format – could reopen in the future, LaFavor said. She hopes the enrollment in Paulina doesn’t drop further.

“I would hate to see the school drop off because I think you would still have a few kids like Brothers, and that transportation to town for those younger kids I think is just not the right thing to do,” she said.

Embracing small schools

There are nine schools in the state with 10 or fewer students, according to the Oregon Department of Education. In addition to Paulina, 15 schools have between 11 and 30 students, although the department’s numbers show Paulina as having 28 students.

Although the teacher needs have been met for next year, finding teachers for Paulina in the future could still be a “very difficult proposition,” Swisher said.

“Sometimes historically people have gone there for a year and haven’t liked the isolation of a very remote, very small community,” he said.

Steve Talbott, the former teacher in Brothers, said that is an important consideration for anyone thinking of working in Paulina. Talbott, who lived in Bend and commuted, worked at Brothers for four years starting in 2001 and saw the number of students drop from 15 to three. He said the time he was there “went by like it was a year and there was always an iron in the fire.”

“I loved it. The people were wonderful, the parents were wonderful, the community was very supportive – it was a fabulous little microcosm of any community,” Talbott said. “Those kids were just so happy to be together in one place with other kids, and the friendship aspect of school was not taken for granted in that setting.”

One of the new teachers for Paulina, Mike Zielaskowski, said he has already worked at two rural schools and is looking forward to moving back to a small town. Zielaskowski is currently the director of academics at Mount Bachelor Academy and lives in Prineville.

“It looked like an ideal job to me, a small school in a medium-sized school district (with) the benefits and resources that come with that,” he said.

Zielaskowski said he and his wife plan to sell their house in Prineville and move to the eastern part of the county. He will teach fifth through eighth grades at the school. The other new teacher, Hallie Edgmon, will live in the school’s “teacherage,” which is just steps from the classrooms.

“I just mainly (like) the community involvement, easy access to parents and open community,” Zielaskowski said. “There’s pluses and minuses to that, but that’s the main reason.”

Several students said they will miss Hoppe and Kilander, but they are also excited for a change.

“It’s cool, but we will miss Mrs. Hoppe,” said Karina Villagomez, 9, who is in third grade. “She’s been our teacher for a long time.”

And fifth-grader Cheyenne Camara, 11, said she is glad “that we’re getting new teachers next year.”

“Just because for something new,” Cheyenne said. “I haven’t had very many different teachers – I’ve had mostly the same teacher every year.”

Similarly, Hoppe said she will miss Paulina Elementary, but is looking forward to the next stage. She added that, even though some parents have worried about the possibility of the school closing, she doesn’t think it will happen soon.

“Right now, there’s nothing for the school to do except consolidate into town,” she said. “I think as long as there’s a family that has kids that (need) schooling, there will be a school here.”

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