Subscribe for 17¢ / day

GREENOUGH - Data collection is one of the tasks that Erin Lipkind, the Missoula County superintendent of schools, performs for the Sunset School District.

Here's some data she collected this year.

Number of teachers? One.

Number of students? One.

Student-to-teacher ratio? One-to-one.

And if the state Office of Public Instruction cared, Lipkind would mark down "one" for number of dogs in District 30. That would be Maggie, the school's unofficial mascot, a mixed poodle owned by teacher Chantale Daniel.

"One" features prominently on spreadsheets for Sunset, a K-8 school district located on Paws Up Ranch property near the little town of Greenough, 35 miles east of Missoula. But even at this Class 3 district, historically one of the state's smallest, "one" almost never happens.

Collecting data for a school district whose only student is a girl who rides to school on a snowmobile - as Amber Leetch does every day (see related story, Page E1) - is not a difficult job. But the very thing that makes that job simple gives rise to some thorny issues when it comes to keeping Sunset running.

For instance, why bother keeping a school - in fact, an entire school district - open to serve one student?

The answer has sandy blond hair: Amber Leetch.

In Montana, which has around 480 separate school districts - 16 of them in Missoula County - state law mandates that a school district must remain open as long as there is at least one occupied desk.

"This school has been able to maintain population - enough of a population - to keep going," said Lipkind, who serves as the de facto superintendent, principal, accountant and chief administrator for Sunset.

***

Sunset School experiences the ebb and flow of enrollment like any other district. Some years, 20 kids attend. Other years, half a dozen. But for at least the past five, that number has been dropping with unmistakable regularity - 18, 13, 10, six and this year one.

"It's just one of those things," said Brenda Tallon, whose twin sons spent all eight years at Sunset and now attend Seeley-Swan High School. "It's rural Montana."

The district's boundaries circumscribe an area about equal to that of the Missoula County Public Schools district's student population of 8,500. But inside Sunset's boundaries - which include the southern half of Salmon Lake, and part of the Lubrecht Experimental Forest - there are a mere 221 residents, about a dozen of whom are school-aged. The district also includes much of Paws Up Ranch.

This year, almost all the parents within the district chose to send their children to nearby Potomac or Swan Valley, mostly because of transportation issues.

But Jim and Wendy Leetch, at least this year, saved Sunset School. Their daughter Amber had a difficult four years in Potomac, so they elected to send her to Sunset, not knowing at the time that their decision saved Chantale Daniel's job.

Every day, Amber rides five miles on a snowmobile then hops in her parents' truck for another five-mile drive to get to school.

"We felt she would be able to get the one-on-one attention she needed," said Wendy Leetch.

That's why Brenda Tallon, whose husband Dennis recently resigned as Sunset School board chairman, sent her twin sons there.

"One of the biggest advantages is it's pretty much one-on-one teaching," she said. "The boys have been able to excel. There was a lot of extra time for the kids."

***

But all is not rosy here, said Juanita Vero, current board chairwoman and a student at Sunset from 1980 to 1987.

Yes, students get much more attention. But problems in small schools and small communities also tend to explode into controversies and bitter battles.

"There's been years where it's been contentious with all the problems you have with a ‘normal'-sized school," Vero said. "Parental issues, discipline issues - all that kind of gets blown up when it's really small."

A teacher's life here is no less difficult, either, with tiny classes. In fact, just the opposite.

Chantale Daniel doesn't have any breaks during the day - not even at lunch. There is no school lunch program, so she is sometimes the cook. And she's the daily janitor, though a custodian does come in once a week.

"You're out there all by yourself, all day long," said Vero. "Right now with Amber, it's really intense."

As Brenda Tallon noted: "The teachers are janitors and bottle washers and cooks and grant writers."

Those who apply to teach here are warned before the school year, as was Daniel, that their job is not guaranteed to even exist. There's always the chance that no students will enroll.

"We tell them, ‘You have to know that you might not have a job come September,' " said Vero. " ‘Just so you know. We have no idea what's going to happen.' "

That hasn't happened yet. But that doesn't mean the Sunset School District is safe.

***

All it takes is three years of zero enrollment, and Sunset disappears. The folks who live in the district, too, could vote the school right out of existence.

Three consecutive years of zero triggers a state law forcing districts to be annexed by a neighboring one - most likely Potomac, in the case of Sunset.

Considering the downward trend, that's a real possibility now.

"The death of a school is often the death of a community," said Lipkind. "It may be the only social gathering place for the whole community."

In fact, Sunset recently lost its status as a voting precinct, and neighbors of the school are none too pleased about having to drive to Potomac to vote.

The one thing that Sunset does have in its favor is the support of residents in its district - whether that support is motivated by money or by community spirit.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Either way, they're unlikely to begin petitioning to close Sunset. Doing so would force an annexation, and that would raise their taxes and shutter their little white school.

Homeowners inside the Sunset district are taxed $79 for every $100,000 of property value - based on 49 mills. Next door in Potomac, meanwhile, the mill rate is 114.

And that's despite the state cutting Sunset's funding by half. Taxpayers here are, after all, paying the salary of just one teacher in a district with a budget this year of a mere $83,000.

The state dropped half its funding because for the second year in a row, average enrollment dipped below 10. When that happens, a small district can apply for "isolation status" - making the case with the state that students in the district have no choice but to attend the school because of transportation issues.

With most kids attending Potomac, that's clearly not the case. And so the state pinched off half of its normal support for Sunset - leaving taxpayers to pick up the $12,771 tab.

Even given that, folks here want the school open, said Rachel Vielleux, the recently retired Missoula County schools superintendent who worked with Sunset for more than two decades.

"They've been there before," she said. "And they've said, ‘We don't want to lose our school.' "

***

And so the Sunset School District seems destined to soldier on.

The enrollment of one may be an anomaly. But it certainly has created a nearly unprecedented situation - and a very special relationship between a young girl and a first-year teacher.

Sunset School and Amber have been extraordinarily fortunate to have found a teacher as immensely qualified as Daniel, said Vero.

"Right now, we're really lucky," said the board chairwoman. "I mean, she speaks three languages and she knows music. Where do you find that?"

Lipkind agreed, calling Daniel "an exceptional find with excellent credentials."

Daniel, who is expecting a baby in August, may not return next year. But that doesn't diminish the myriad other educational pluses of a tiny school like Sunset, said Lipkind.

"They don't have all these policies in place like MCPS," she said. "They can do things on their own. In fact, they do manage to do most things on their own."

Inside Sunset School, there are new computers and Wi-Fi Internet and even a "smartboard" - the digital interface that is the modern-day equivalent of a chalkboard.

And even if the population explodes to, say, 10, think of how much time the teacher can spend with each student.

"Overall the advantage is the individualized attention," said Lipkind. "It's like being home-schooled."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
0
0
0
0
0