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Taking Heat Off Students

Pupils in Death Valley can travel 60 miles to school in sweltering buses. To cut costs and spare kids, the district may try a four-day week.

September 29, 2004|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

DEATH VALLEY — Here in the desert, where the ruthless sun punishes even the scorpions, a yellow school bus is delivering its delicate afternoon cargo.

Exhausted children in T-shirts and shorts are sleeping on the vinyl seats or staring out the windows as the bus bounces along a rocky dirt road toward a colony of beat-up trailers and mobile homes 30 miles from school.

A thermometer above the dashboard reads 104 degrees inside the cab -- and that's with the air conditioner running.

"It's like a sardine can sitting in the sun," said driver Kate Carrasco.

Scorching heat and vast distances have long been a part of life in the Death Valley Unified School District, whose 78 students are spread over an area larger than Los Angeles and Orange counties combined.

Now, eager to cut spiraling transportation costs and spare children lengthy bus rides, the Death Valley system is thinking about slashing its school week from five days to four -- something it tried briefly 25 years ago.

The idea has won Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's blessing. He signed a law this month allowing Death Valley's three schools -- and campuses in six other rural districts around the state -- to operate on a four-day schedule starting as early as this year.

The schools would increase their days by an hour or so to meet the minimum class time required by the state -- a welcome change among Death Valley school leaders eager to ease the toll of desert commutes.

Death Valley's schoolchildren together log 178,000 miles a year on the buses -- the equivalent of circling Earth seven times. Some of the hot, bumpy rides are as long as 60 miles one way.

"It would certainly be humane for the kids not to have to make that bus run an extra day," said Death Valley Supt. Jim Copeland.

Administrators and teachers believe the shorter school week would improve attendance.

They say students often miss entire school days traveling to doctors' appointments in Barstow, Victorville or Las Vegas. Student athletes lose additional days commuting to games against other small schools up to seven hours away by bus. With the proposed change, all that could be scheduled for the extra day off.

"I think we'd get more done if we went four, longer days," said Theresa Thomason, one of two teachers at the 15-student Death Valley Elementary School in the Furnace Creek area of Death Valley National Park. "We tend to run out of time to get everything done."

Parents have mixed feelings. Many like the idea of getting their children off the buses. Others fear that longer days would tire out students and teachers. Some with small children worry about finding child care on the added day off.

"It's going to cause a lot of problems for a lot of parents," said parent Heather Haynes, who drives a school bus five days a week for a school district in nearby Pahrump, Nev. "I don't feel like it's a good idea."

For their part, students are not eager to see the school week slashed. School offers an escape from the isolation of the desert, where families live -- some without electricity or phone service -- amid the district's 6,000 square miles of scrub brush, dramatic mountains and salt-crusted basins along California's eastern reaches.

"There's nothing to do" in the desert, said 14-year-old Autumn Leikam, who lives in a mobile home off a dirt road about 30 miles from school.

Her 10-year-old sister, Amber, agreed. "I'd get lonelier," she said of the possible three-day weekends.

Amber and her classmates inhabit a land of extremes.

Death Valley registered the second-highest temperature ever recorded -- 134 degrees, in 1913, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Only Libya has been hotter, by 2 degrees.

The area also has the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere: 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin.

And although Death Valley is the driest spot in North America, flash floods can unexpectedly send walls of water, mud and rock crashing through its barren canyons and parched valleys.

One flood struck last month, ripping chunks from a 20-mile stretch of Highway 190, claiming the lives of two motorists and stranding four middle- and high-school students in Furnace Creek, 60 miles from school. A retired teacher now braves dirt and gravel detours once a week to bring the students their assignments and collect homework.

But the flash flood and its destructive aftermath hardly fazed the bus drivers who ply the roads -- passing landmarks such as Hells Gate and Coffin Peak -- with steady nerves and a bit of luck.

Death Valley's buses have no radios because the equipment is too costly and is unreliable in the remote area. Cellular phones also are often useless in the mountainous landscape. And so when the buses break down, drivers usually have to hitchhike to the nearest town or home and call for help.

"I basically live by truck drivers and nice tourists," said driver Kristy McAdams, who makes two 120-mile round trips each day between the district's home-base town of Shoshone and Furnace Creek.

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