AGATE – Students in the state’s smallest school district are again enjoying some academic niceties officials there feared they’d never see again:
Regular music and art classes, jettisoned years ago when the budget got tight, have been restored. Physical education is daily now. There’s a computer for every student and regular computer instruction.
There are even some luxuries other districts can only dream of, such as regular field trips. An artist-in-residence program. A well-stocked library and rich stashes of classroom supplies. Classroom space to spare. Frequent enrichment activities. And pretty close to individualized instruction for every student in every academic subject.
But there’s a trade-off for this kind of resource abundance. With only 10 students, officials in Agate aren’t sure how long their school district can remain viable.
“It’s working well right now,” said Kendra Ewing, district superintendent and principal of Agate School. “But I don’t know if it’s sustainable. I don’t have my crystal ball to look into.”
Board opted to close junior and senior high school
Nearly two years ago, faced with years of steady enrollment declines, the school board made the decision to close the district junior and senior high school and send those students to nearby districts.
It kept open the elementary school, and determined to offer the best primary education possible.
Last year, there were nine students in the 36,000-square-foot building. This year, there are 10.
“But see me in two weeks,” said Ewing. “I bet we have 12 by then. One of our parents may have some relatives moving in.”
She also knows of at least three 4-year-olds in the pipeline. But Ewing isn’t willing to count her kindergartners before they enroll.
“It’s all so iffy,” she said. “We have a lot of movement out here. Half our students are from different families than we had last year. People move away.”
A lot of land, not many people
The Agate School District encompasses a vast area on the eastern plains. It’s 458 square miles of rural Elbert County.
“That’s a lot of land and not many people,” said Ewing, who lives on a farm in Genoa, 30 minutes from the community of Agate, where the school is located. “What other people call rural, I wouldn’t necessarily call rural. This is rural.”
Ironically, Agate School might be more easily accessible to residents on the eastern edge of the metro area than it is to some of the district’s own residents. It’s 70 miles east of downtown Denver, but right off I-70. Some students in the district live 30 miles or more away from the school, and must traverse dirt roads to get there.
The district actually is home to 38 school-age youngsters, and that’s what the state’s per-pupil funding is based on. But of the 28 older kids, eight now go to school in Kiowa, 17 in Byers and three in Limon. Agate pays those districts to educate its junior and senior high school students. It also pays their parents part of the costs to drive them there – 32 cents a mile for one round-trip per day.
In the enormously complex algorithm that is Colorado’s school funding formula, so far everybody’s making money on the deal, except the state. While the state average per-pupil funding in Colorado is just $6,474, for Agate it’s $13,815. In the neighboring districts accepting Agate’s older students, state funding ranges from $7,134 per pupil in Limon to $8,181 in Kiowa. Agate reimburses those districts 70 percent of their state funding rate for each Agate student they take.
“Ten extra kids to a school with 430 kids is nothing,” said Vic Craven, the district’s longtime business manager and former school board member. “They don’t have to add staff for that, so their expenses remain basically the same, but they get the extra funding for the extra students.”
Agate, meanwhile, banks the rest to build up its reserves. The district will spend only two-thirds of its allotted $944,000 income, and retain a third to help cover the bills for the following year – when income may be far less, if enrollment keeps going down.
“We are financially and fiscally in good shape,” Craven said. “We can operate on a minimum.”
“And we’re frugal wherever we can be,” added Ewing. “Not when it comes to enrichment activities. And anything our teachers need, they have. But our worries are about numbers. If our student count goes down, we’ll run out of money.”
Everyone involved in educating the children
Agate’s students – two fourth-graders, one third-grader, four second-graders, two first-graders and one kindergartener – soak up all the attention one part-time and two full-time teachers can lavish on them. Ewing, Craven and Ewing’s secretary, Jolene Chambers, also work with the children as needed.
“Everybody in the building teaches,” said Sue Anderson, who came out of retirement last year after teaching in Limon for 32 years in order to fulfill her dream of teaching in a “country school.”
“If I have someone who needs to read a story one more time, I can send that child to Kendra or Vic. Everyone in the building knows every child, and knows what that child needs to work on,” she said. “There’s no need for special ed in a system like this because we all know where every child is. They don’t have a chance of not mastering things when they have seven or eight people quizzing them on what they need to know.”
Anderson splits teaching duties with Agate veteran educator Karen Beuck, who taught at Agate High School since 1999, but got her elementary certification over the summer. Beuck teaches math and art to everyone, and social studies and science to the older students; Anderson does music, most of the language arts, and social studies and science for the younger ones. The students all take music and PE at the same time.
“I do miss the high school students. I enjoyed working with them. But each grade has challenges of its own,” said Bueck, whose three daughters all graduated from Agate High School. “Besides, I don’t know many other elementary schools where the students have computer training every day, and where there’s a teacher certified in art and a teacher certified in music.”
“I’m probably the only superintendent in Colorado who does playground duty … I’m probably also the only superintendent who has a kindergartner nap in her office.”
— Agate’s Kendra Ewing“It’s not as though we’re small and don’t have anything to offer students,” she said. “In a lot of ways, we provide more opportunities for our students than larger schools.”
The youngsters all eat lunch together, and afterward hit the playground, where Ewing supervises recess at least one day a week.
“I’m probably the only superintendent in Colorado who does playground duty,” she said. “But I want to do it to be fair. We all share playground duty.”
After lunch, nine of the 10 students return to their afternoon classes. But the kindergartener beds down for her afternoon snooze – in Ewing’s office.
“I’m probably also the only superintendent who has a kindergartner nap in her office,” said Ewing, who taught elementary classes in Agate from 2002-2005, then returned to Agate as superintendent in 2010.
“The first week of school, I had a sign up on my office door that said ‘Shhh! Nap time!’ but you don’t want people thinking the superintendent takes naps during the day.”
Lots of lessons to prepare
While enjoying the luxury of extremely small classes and four-day school weeks, Anderson and Beuck do sometimes strain to prepare daily lessons for so many subjects and so many grades.
“I didn’t realize how much time and effort it takes to plan for that many kids at different levels,” Anderson admitted. She must prepare four different reading lessons every day, plus two music lessons, two P.E. lessons, two science lessons and two social studies lessons every week. “That’s why I’m usually here every Friday, just to plan,” she said.
Sunnie Iacovetta, the mother of a fourth-grader and a second-grader at the school, had no qualms about enrolling her children there when the family moved into the district last May. They came from Jefferson County – the state’s largest school district – but she had briefly home-schooled them as well.
“It’s A-OK with me on the smallness. I like the closeness the kids all have.”
— Agate mom Sunnie Iacovetta“My kids have been to regular schools where there are twenty-some kids to a class, and I liked that too,” she said. “But I like this a lot better. It’s A-OK with me on the smallness. I like the closeness the kids all have. They snack and have lunch together, they do recess and gym together. And I can see the teachers really care about the students.
“The lack of sports doesn’t bother me because they’re just in elementary school,” she said. “And they’ll be in 4-H. They’re active kids. My daughter, Brooke, says she misses one friend she had before, but otherwise they don’t miss anything. They’re just happy kids living out in the country.”
Beuck wonders if other parents who currently home-school their children might not consider enrolling them in Agate School, if they knew about it.
“This might be a wonderful fit for them,” she said, “because it’s not that far from individualized instruction, but they’d get more socialization than what they have at home.”