When public’s not an option

Remote McElmo Canyon held onto school with untried solution

Battle Rock Charter School kindergartener Heather Martinez prepares for a day-long hike in Sand Canyon, part of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Battle Rock Charter School kindergartener Heather Martinez prepares for a day-long hike in Sand Canyon, part of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

McELMO CANYON – Sherri Wright began her 40-minute drive to work before the sun rose.

Coffee in hand, she headed south from Cortez and turned west following the bumpy two-lane Road G as it wound down into McElmo Canyon. She drove past orchards tucked into the wrinkles of the land, tilled fields ready to be planted and cattle grazing on the sparse shrubbery. Eventually, the tin roof and stone walls of Battle Rock Charter School came into view, its gravel playground already buzzing with arriving students.

The school was built in 1915 to serve families in the canyon, most who made a living ranching or farming. In 1994, when the district threatened to close Battle Rock because of low enrollment and the retirement of its longtime teacher, the community pulled together to save the school by turning it into a charter. It was the first of its kind to be created under such circumstances.

In the 18 years since, the school has faced its fair share of financial, administrative and academic struggles. Wright, the school’s director, is working for free this year to help the school scrape by. Somehow, it has continued to weather those storms and remains a central pillar of this historic canyon community.

“There are many years when we question whether we’ll be here next year,” said Julia Kelly, who has been the school’s art and music teacher on and off for seven years. “Honestly (the school) has deserved its name.”

One with the community

Since Battle Rock gained its charter, about 12 other communities have taken similar steps to save, revive or create a local school, said Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“Each of them are variations on same theme,” Griffin said. “They came about in order to serve a part of the state that didn’t have a public school option.”

The schools are shaped by their limited resources and the character of the community, he said.

Just as its walls blend into the sandstone rocks behind it, Battle Rock is a mirror image of the community of McElmo Canyon. Of the school’s 38 students, 27 are Navajo, Ute or Hispanic. Its curriculum incorporates the canyon’s cultural mix and carries a strong sense of place. Students raise turkeys, then help butcher and cook them for Thanksgiving. Almost every week, they take a hike that zigzags up the rim of the canyon. Navajo language classes are part of the curriculum and this year, students have weekly lessons with horses.

Jude Schuenemeyer, a parent of two Battle Rock students, said he is constantly impressed by the integration between students from all different backgrounds.

“There’s a tightness to it,” Schuenemeyer said. “At other schools they self-segregate; here they don’t do that.”

Footwear at the school’s holiday performance, for example, ranged from purple cowboy boots to tennis shoes to moccasins, he said.

Grading the school

For the last several years, Battle Rock’s test scores have been gradually declining, and last year, the school placed in the lowest category of academic performance. Though the students’ academic achievement is still below par, educators are celebrating because their growth since last year qualified the school for improvement status, one level below the state’s top performance standard.

Its smallness has allowed the school to be nimble in response to change and to give its students much more freedom in the classroom. With mixed grades, there is an expectation that the older students will help the younger ones. Much of the time teachers try to incorporate outside, hands-on learning such as covering anatomy by butchering a turkey or learning about biology on hikes.

Because it isn’t tied to the district’s system, the school has gone through many cycles of change depending on the makeup of the administration, the school’s five-member board of directors, students and teachers.

“It changes to fit whoever is here,” said Moqui Mustain-Fury, the school’s third through sixth grade teacher.

Even though most of the charters similar to Battle Rock weren’t created with the goal of customizing curriculum, such autonomy is something most communities come to value, said Griffin, of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

Financial challenges

The school constantly struggles to stay afloat financially. Its population has declined over the years as the price of property in the canyon increased and the children of old-time farmers didn’t want to continue their parents’ professions, said Mustain-Fury, who attended the school as a student and has watched it transform through the years. She now lives in one of Battle Rock’s abandoned schoolhouses up the valley.

At-risk students, or those who qualify for free or reduced lunch, make up 99 percent of the school’s population. And with so few students, losing just one or two is a huge blow to the budget, Wright said. The school owes the Colorado Department of Education about $24,000 after eight students from Utah attended the school last year because it was the closest option. The state is required to reimburse the school only for Colorado students, so Wright is working for free to make up the loss.

Such financial obstacles are common among the charters that have started in small communities, Griffin said. But those challenges force the schools to find creative solutions, he said.

The school may only have a limited number of dollars but the community decides how they are spent, which is empowering, he said. Despite years of financial and academic struggles, Battle Rock always has been able to depend on community support, Wright said. Parent-teacher meetings are potlucks and regularly draw 40 parents. The students take field trips to nearby farms and greenhouses to learn about the agriculture that has long been fundamental to the valley’s existence.

Jude Schuenemeyer recently taught the students how to graft trees, a skill he is using to save and cultivate ancient varieties of fruit trees that used to proliferate throughout the canyon.

Everyone is invested in sustaining the school, Battle Rock’s educators said.

“It’s cherished,” Mustain-Fury said. “It really is the heart of the canyon.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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