North Routt charts new school path

'Our grades go down because we're tired'

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— At 7:15 a.m., the Christmas lights are still on at the Clark Store. A line of about 25 sleepy students ranging from age 5 to 18 stumble aboard Betsy Zimmerman's bus in the early dawn as a light snow falls. The bus spent the night indoors, but the windows, which have signs hanging over them that instruct students not to open them without permission, have developed a thick frost on the ride up from Steamboat.

Just becoming visible a hundred or so yards in the distance is the old Clark Schoolhouse. Forty years ago, these students would likely have been attending that one-room school.

The children filter onto the bus and arrange themselves by grade level. The youngest sit two and three to a seat in the front. High schoolers shuffle to the back, where the noise of the engine reverberates under their feet and the smell of diesel exhaust mixes with the odor of the Naugahyde seats.

High school senior Silas Cammer sits in the last seat on the bus with his knees pressed up against the seat in front of him. He has ridden this bus since he was in first grade. Today he is listening to his portable CD player, which pours out rap and rhythm and blues tracks.

Cammer says he doesn't mind the ride, which he has gotten used to in the approximately twelve years he has ridden the bus.

"It's just like your off-time," Cammer says.

A north Routt student will log about 4,320 hours, or 180 days, of "off-time" on this bus from the time he is in kindergarten until he is 16.

"Our grades go down because we're tired," said Hallie Van Straaten, a seventh-grader at the middle school. Van Straaten said she would likely have gone to the charter school if she had had the chance.

The ride lasts about an hour in both directions, though the duration of the trip depends on the weather. Most north Routt grade school students go to Strawberry Park Elementary School, about 20 miles from the Clark Store, before they graduate to the middle and high schools.

It is this bus ride that spurred a group of five parents to start a charter school in the area, a school that will take up to 18 of the students off that bus as of this September.

Financial plans for a school some feel will be a 'world' away from Steamboat Springs

Five north Routt residents, including Sandy Clark, Shaunna Watterson, Mike Swinsick, Nancy White and Barb Lynn drew up an application for a charter school which they presented to the school board on June 12, 2000. The board, however, wanted to research the idea before giving its approval and directed Superintendent Cyndy Simms, finance director Dale Mellor and board members Matt Hermes and Paul Fisher to attend meetings about the school. The nearly eight-month process that ensued ended just this past Monday when the school board approved a plan for a charter school in north Routt County.

BEFORE 40 YEARS OF BUSING

Before 1960, there were 44 school districts in Routt County. Most of those districts consisted of one or more one-room schoolhouses. Students of different ages would often be taught in one classroom together, possible having only two teachers between kindergarten and eighth grade. Ranch work, at times, superseded schoolwork, so that 18-year-olds could sometimes be found in eighth grade, according to the book "Windows to Yesterday" by Jan Leslie. The Moonhill Schoolhouse was part of its own district, established in 1887. The school that stands off of County Road 129 today was built in 1913, according to Leslie. The log building had a barn for students' horses. After it was annexed by the Steamboat school district in 1952, the building became a community center and is now owned by the north Routt fire department.

The rest of the districts not already annexed by 1960 were eliminated in a state-enforced redistricting that year.

In 1960, the districts were "reorganized," consolidating into three new districts: RE-1 for Hayden, RE-2 for Steamboat Springs and RE-3 for the South Routt area. The unincorporated area in north Routt became part of the RE-2 district, sending students down to Steamboat.

North Routt resident Jay Fetcher, who ran for the state Legislature last year, was educated in the Clark Schoolhouse until he entered eighth grade in 1960. He had two teachers between kindergarten and seventh grade and rarely went into Steamboat.

"I didn't go to town for months," Fetcher said.

He remembers a time when the schoolhouse was also the center of the community and parents spent a good deal of time within the walls of the school.

"The center of the community was that school," he said. "Everything happened there. The school continued to exist even after it closed down as a community center."

"But what drove the interest was the fact that the kids were there. It was the same with the Moonhill Schoolhouse. The activity wasn't nearly as high afterwards because there were no kids there."

He is optimistic that the charter school will be able to bring back that sense of community that used to center around the one-room schoolhouse.

"Once the charter school is there I think some of that will come back," he said.

But he also remembers the traumatic culture shock he experienced when he transitioned into the Steamboat high school. He said he would not have wanted his own kids to have had to go through that transition.

"To me, I just feel that the advantages socially and in terms of what the mixed group of kids in town offers, is something I wouldn't have wanted my kids to miss," he said.

Sandy Clark said the new charter school will have a close connection with the Steamboat schools and will hope to bring students from both areas together to learn.

"I'm very hopeful that we can participate in Steamboat activities and Steamboat can participate in ours," she said.

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