Tucked away in a fold of Orange County's canyons, Silverado Elementary is an anachronism, a small-town school in a big-city district. With just 93 students and four teachers, the school is small by Wyoming standards, let alone Southern California.
It's been this way for generations. Whether it will last, though, is in doubt.
While the state budget crisis has educators across California bracing for painful cuts in teachers and programs, the tight-knit communities in and around Silverado and Modjeska canyons fear a worse fate: the closing of their only school.
Silverado Elementary's future is far from sealed; the Orange Unified School District says shutting the campus is a worst-case scenario.
But as the district begins to grapple with how it would deal with a potential $16.5-million cut in its $250-million budget, the outsized cost of teaching Silverado's small student body is drawing scrutiny. Public meetings on the budget crisis are scheduled for Monday and Wednesday.
"Right now we're subsidizing the school by taking funds from other programs," said Jon Archibald, Orange Unified's assistant superintendent for business services. "While we've tried to maintain that school, ultimately the decision will depend on what the state is going to give us."
The district spends about 70% more per Silverado student than its average. The markup is due to the school's poor economy of scale. No matter its size, a school needs a principal, someone to answer the phones, and custodial and food services, among other basics.
The school's staff already stretches to make ends meet. Silverado's principal wears two hats: She's also in charge of the preschool program. And its four teachers handle combination classes that shift with each year's demographics. One class combines second- and third-graders, while another has third-and fourth-graders.
"We're already operating pretty bare bones," Archibald said.
The trade-off for students, parents say, is a school experience unlike any other.
"Talk to anyone who has gone there, and they'll tell you it was always such a cherished time," said Chay Peterson, whose two boys attended Silverado Elementary. "Being on a first-name basis with all the teachers and bus drivers. Having the same teacher that your parents had.
"The children, when they gear up to go to junior high or high school, a lot of them are scared," she said. "They know they're going to a school with over a thousand kids and they'll be part of the shuffle of human bodies and will lose the personal identity and security they have at this school."
Silverado Canyon has had a school since the 1880s. It has survived fires, floods and wildly fluctuating enrollment. Daily attendance in 1905 was seven; in 1950 it was 98. The school became part of Orange Unified in 1954, and three years later the current campus was built on 11 acres.
Several years ago the district considered closing the school, Archibald said, but kept it open in anticipation of enrollment growth from a 4,000-home development slated for East Orange.
Under the plan, a new elementary and junior high school would eventually replace Silverado.
"We initially expected homes to be built there by the 2006-2007 school year," Archibald said. "But until the housing crisis sorts itself out, it doesn't look like it's going to happen quickly."
Even though it will be months before the district knows how deeply it needs to cut, Silverado's supporters are already at work collecting petition signatures and looking into whether it could become a charter school with a focus on the environment.
Doing that would cost the school the additional per-student subsidy it gets from Orange Unified but would also allow it to apply for outside grant money.
"We have such a unique location here, surrounded by nature," said Laura Bennett, whose two children attend Silverado.
An environmental program could be a resource used by students throughout the district, she said.
The county's canyon communities have a history of banding together, whether to survive natural disasters or to oppose large-scale development.
Saving Silverado Elementary, Bennett said, would elicit support not just from parents but from people without school-aged children who see the school as a cherished local institution.
"They say closing the school is only a worst-case scenario," she said. "But if it does happen, I'm sure all the residents here are ready to fight."