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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Little Wonder

Rural Schoolhouse Prides Itself on Old-Time Smallness

September 06, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Clara School Principal Jan Lee kicked off the Little Red Schoolhouse's 104th year Tuesday by ringing a tarnished bell and welcoming the students--all 33 of them.

Truth be told, Ventura County's only one-room schoolhouse really has two modular classrooms: one for the "little kids," from kindergarten through second grade, and one for the "big kids," in grades three through six. The main schoolhouse is used for parent meetings, school plays and the students' daily Pledge of Allegiance.

Santa Clara was among the last wave of Ventura County campuses to start the 2000-01 school year. Ojai Unified and Santa Paula Union High School districts also opened their doors Tuesday, as did two other of the county's small, rural districts, Briggs Elementary and Mupu Elementary. Most of the county's schools started classes before Labor Day.

Santa Clara School, which was built in 1896 along East Telegraph Road near Santa Paula, is considered as much a part of the Santa Clara Valley's landscape as the citrus orchards that surround it.

There are only a few dozen one-room schoolhouses in California, reminders of a time and place when education truly was a family affair. This year, there are eight sets of siblings at Santa Clara School.

The school grounds are like a window into rural campuses of years past. A weather vane sits atop the building. Steppingstones lead to two picnic tables on a grassy lawn. Outside the office is a long white bench, where students used to line up before school. Occasionally, a large tractor roars by on state Highway 126.

Inside, the school is more contemporary. There are seven computers, all with Internet access. The school even has a Web site, http://www.scesd.k12.ca.us, which offers a virtual tour of the campus and a brief history.

"Even though we are a Little Red Schoolhouse, we still try to be as modern as possible," said Lee, who teaches the older children.

About a third of the students are from within the district's boundaries, and the rest were transferred to the school by their parents because of the rural atmosphere, the intimate classes and the academic reputation. A few families have moved to the Santa Clara Valley so their children could attend.

Many of the children are sons and daughters of farmers and ranch hands.

During one activity on the first day of school, students in the primary class had to draw a picture and write the names of their family members. Wearing a gray striped outfit, first-grader Zachariah Krupa used his fingers to count his family members.

"I have seven, six not including me, plus three chickens, two dogs, one cat and a horse," he said.

His friend Jeremy Brooks said he had "infinity" in his family.

The Krupas moved from Simi Valley to Fillmore and were thrilled to find the Little Red Schoolhouse. Marla Krupa said she knows her children are getting more individual attention than they would at a bigger school.

"If there are problems, the teachers can spot them and deal with them," she said. "It's harder to overlook them."

Educators at small schools say such campuses have more student pride, more parent involvement and more schoolwide camaraderie than bigger schools.

Teachers also say the small number of students and teachers promotes accountability. Like every other public school in California, Santa Clara's students must use state-adopted textbooks and take standardized tests.

"We are required to meet all the state standards every other school is expected to meet," Lee said. "But because there are so few students, I can see where we are and where we could be."

Some of the staples of public education originated in one-room schoolhouses, including small student-to-teacher ratios and classrooms of students in different grades. There are fewer discipline problems when there are only 16 or 17 students in a class, teachers say.

The combination classes also allow bright students to move ahead and struggling students to get some extra help, they add. Older students often serve as mentors to the younger kids in mixed-grade classrooms.

There are challenges, however, at tiny schools. The school staff is stretched thin. Martha Rogers, for example, is the yard duty supervisor, secretary, unofficial nurse, teacher's aide and lunch lady.

The funding, based on student enrollment, is limited.

And both Lee and the primary-grades teacher, Beth Gutierrez, constantly have to juggle the different grades, making sure that the students are being taught at the right level. Lee will work out of four different textbooks and plans to color-code the children's work sheets by grade.

Some parents also worry about the isolation of their children. But fifth-grader Pierce Krupa said he likes the size of his school.

"It's kinda fun, because all my friends are in my class," he said. "And there is a lot of room to run around on the playground."

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