Rural Arizona grade school stays open during walkouts
The Maine Consolidated School, a small grade school in Parks, Ariz., is one of the few schools to stay open during an Arizona wide teacher walk. A decision, teachers say, that was driven by the close-knit nature of rural communities.
Parks, Ariz.—Students in Patrick Brown's sixth-grade science class grab laptops from cubby holes for a lesson on water data.
Type in "High Adventure Science," he tells them, writing the words on the whiteboard. He then quizzes the 10 students sitting in metal chairs with worn cushions on porosity, permeability, and salinity.
One student interjects and says "I saw your son today."
At the small grade school tucked into the ponderosa pine forest about 20 miles west of Flagstaff, Ariz., everyone knows everyone. The Maine Consolidated School in Parks, Ariz., has an average teacher to student ratio of 1:10 in a community of about 1,400 people.
Close relationships like that made the decision easy not to close school as thousands around Arizona protested education funding with walkouts, teachers said. Susan Crouse, who teaches second grade, characterized it as a community decision versus a faculty decision.
Students would have missed field trips, a play, and volleyball matches. Some likely would have gone without lunch. Parents would have struggled to find child care. The teachers also thought about the support they received to move to a four-day school week.
"Our job is for the kids," said first-grade teacher Jennifer Grantham, who has been at the school for 20 years.
Outside Arizona's metropolitan areas teachers have supported the #RedforEd movement by writing letters and emails to state officials, wearing red at school, staging walk-ins and walk-outs, and putting signs in their yards and car windows. Some, like Ms. Crouse, joined crowds in larger cities outside school hours rallying in front of government buildings.
Other rural districts, like Whiteriver in eastern Arizona, limited closures to a half-day. Towns like Show Low, Ariz., used snow days as teachers rallied in Phoenix. Teachers gathering at the state Capitol have said they'll be on strike until legislators pass a budget.
The Round Valley Unified School District, serving Eagar, Ariz., and Springerville, Ariz., delayed school on the first day of walkouts for two hours for a march that drew 300 people.
"Our teachers felt that in trying to keep the trust of our community, we would find a compromise and a win-win," district superintendent Travis Udall said Wednesday.
Others didn't close at all.
Wes Brownfield, executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association, said rural teachers tend to be more conservative, vested in their communities, and have spouses who work in the same town. The likelihood that teachers will see students and parents outside the classroom at restaurants or in the grocery store checkout line is much higher, he said.
"One dynamic is rural people, I think often are a little careful or aware of who they antagonize. You'll run in to them. In an urban district, you can be completely anonymous," he said.
That doesn't mean the teachers don't feel undervalued and want change, he said.
Most of the teachers at the Maine Consolidated School have second jobs in retail stores, a church, as a wilderness guide and music coach, and an Uber driver. Sarah Atherton doesn't, but she and her two kids live with her parents.
"It's hard to not be happy out here," she says, looking out her classroom window at the chicken house and humming bird feeders. "Yes, being able to live on my own would be nice. If we never got the raise, I would still be a teacher."
The response to a video posting on the school's Facebook page about keeping schools open received praise from parents for not disrupting the students' lives.
"I'm proud of them for making that decision because they put the students first," said Amanda Betts, whose has two children at the school, and was substituting a physical education class this week.
At the general store along Old Route 66, Cary Asel had a similar sentiment.
"We're just really happy they stayed open," said Ms. Asel, who has a fourth-grader at the school. "I respect the way they're handling it."
Teachers say they mostly get what they need from the district, and it has creatively managed finances. The school still has music, Spanish, physical education, and art programs. Still, money comes out of their own pockets for costumes or school supplies, or so that children can give small gifts to parents for holidays. Donations and grant funding help fill in some gaps.
Among the teachers' wish lists are updated text books, glue sticks, and faster and more reliable internet. Mr. Brown, the science teacher, said some of the classroom laptops are as old as the middle school students using them.
For superintendent Mark Williams, it's asphalt. Gravel and dirt often gets tracked into the gym and chews up the floor, he said.
The average annual teacher pay is $47,000, Mr. Williams said.
Brown said he's conflicted; wanting a boost in salaries but knowing many in Parks make less than teachers. Fellow teacher and wife Kristin Brown believes state lawmakers aren't taking demands seriously because education is a female-dominated industry.
Her teenage daughter has asked why she doesn't quit.
"This is what I love to do," she says.
This article was reported by The Associated Press.