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The Little School District That Could

The Town of Woody Refuses to Lose Its One-Room Schoolhouse, Where the Student-to-Teacher Ratio Is 6 to 1

May 21, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODY, Calif. — This used to be a bustling town, with a working copper mine, a hotel, a general store and a school.

It has lost the mine, the hotel and the store. But Woody, nestled high in the Sierra foothills about 30 miles above Bakersfield, refuses to lose its one-room schoolhouse.

With only six students and a history dating from the 1800s, the Blake School is the smallest public school in California.

The cozy, multi-windowed building is where children progress from kindergarten through eighth grade in an undivided space, under the supervision of one teacher.

For the children, it is a kind of "Little House on the Prairie" existence. For the teacher, it is a lesson in how the West was won.

Whether they still have school-age kids or not (and 86 of Woody's 90 families do not), everybody in town has a relationship with that teacher. He is Michael Coleman, 30, a Santa Ana native who for the past two years has also served as principal and district superintendent at the little school located right in the heart of downtown Woody.

Actually, the school is the heart of downtown Woody.

"Without it, we would lose our town's identity," says Jo Weringer, whose pioneer grandparents arrived in Woody by covered wagon.

Even though her own children have long ago grown and moved away, Weringer and the other aging Woodyites (most of them descendants of pioneers) go to great lengths to assure that new children in the area have a place to learn their ABCs--and to absorb the Old West traditions of community and self-sufficiency that continue to dominate this remote, resilient place.

Coleman says he has "learned more from these amazing people than I could ever have learned teaching anywhere else. They want the best for these children, and they work until they get it. Some never had a child in school, and no reason to care about it, but they're here at every event and whenever we need to raise money."

Two weeks ago, Coleman's students, ages 7 to 13, performed a sophisticated play to help raise money for the students' trip to Washington, D.C., in June.

It was a festive community event, complete with donated dinner, an outdoor stage built by townspeople, and lots of hoots and hollers.

"About 120 people showed up to support us and make donations, out of a population of about 150," Coleman says.

The school has four computers and each child has one at home, the result of no small amount of lobbying by the community.

"This way our kids can do research right here, instead of driving 35 miles to the nearest library," Coleman explains.

One of Coleman's many planned summer projects with the children, he says, will be to start a home page on the Internet to discuss the history of their town and its school.

Coleman chuckles now, recalling his first trip to Woody to interview for the job. After driving up the winding mountain road, with no habitation anywhere in view, he was amazed to arrive at "a place called Main Street that had absolutely nothing on it. Just the school and the teacher's house next to it."

Well, that's main enough for Woody, he soon learned.

He was amazed again, he says, at the tenaciousness of his interviewers, all members of the Woody School Board (and all members of the numerous other boards and clubs in town).

"It was obvious they were fine people with great goals for the local kids."

He took the job but worried that "I might be bored out of my mind up here. You don't see more than 10 people a day. And they're always the same 10 people."

That is, the parents and grandparents who deliver and pick up their kids. There is literally no street traffic in Woody because there are no streets. And no stores of any kind, no gas station, no movie theater. Woodyites seem to spend their days minding their cattle and maintaining their large ranches. And their evenings entertaining each other at potluck suppers and ice cream socials. They make weekly trips to Bakersfield for supplies. And if they forget something, they do without it.

Aside from the postage stamp-sized post office, the fire station and the cemetery (each lovingly maintained by community effort), there really isn't anything else in town.

In spite of all this--or perhaps because of it--Coleman says he quickly found that this job is more taxing, more time-consuming and more rewarding than any he's had before.

"I'm so busy, there isn't a free minute. In fact, there aren't enough hours to get everything done."

*

His days begin at 8 a.m., when students salute the flag. Next, a round of lessons in the core curriculum mandated by the state: reading, language arts, math, science, social sciences, physical education--to name a few.

With students in such a wide range of grades, Coleman must teach much like an orchestra leader conducts. Waving at Stephanie, 8, he starts her on a spelling lesson while Patrick, 9, tackles a math project and Joelle, 10, works on reading.

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