Printed on: April 21, 2013

With one building and 78 students, Leadore has a very small School

By NATE SUNDERLAND
nsunderland@postregister.com

LEADORE — Like a family.

That's the sense a visitor gets at Leadore School: It's almost like walking into a family reunion.

One of two tiny schools in South Lemhi School District 292, Leadore is the smallest K-12 school in Idaho. The district is home to 78 students, who range in age from 5 to 18.

Ten students will graduate this year. The eighth-grade class is comprised of two cousins.

Daily interactions are guided by the familiarity between teachers, students and parents. Many families have known each other for generations. The dynamic is different than the professional mentor-to-student or casual peer-to-peer relationships typical at larger schools.

Most of these students have spent their entire school career at Leadore School. Everyone is on a first-name basis.

"I've been with these (students) for 13 years and they know me and what I can and can't do," senior Trevor Kauer said. "Failing at Leadore isn't an option -- we enjoy a personal one-on-one relationship with each teacher. They know our strengths, weaknesses and interests."

Many teachers, such as Joan Geary-Smith, are generational educators. Her first students at Leadore School some 20 years ago are today the parents of her current students.

"It's kind of nice because ... there is a connection ... you know where the kid has come from and you know how to relate to them," Geary-Smith said.

The inclusive environment offers many challenges and opportunities for students. Teachers and administrators praise the benefits of an ultra-rural education but admit to some major sacrifices in choosing to work at such a remote facility.

Leadore is closer to Dillon, Mont., (67.5 miles) than it is to Challis (104 miles) or Idaho Falls (116 miles). The closest town is Salmon, 46 miles down the road.

The pros are obvious.

Average class size is seven. That means a lot more one-on-one interaction with teachers. As a result, Leadore students tend to do well on standardized tests such as the SAT college entrance exam.

District 292 averaged higher on the SAT than any other school district in eastern Idaho in 2012. All 10 juniors at the school took the test and scored above the state average.

An estimated 90 percent enroll in college within a year of high school graduation, school officials said -- far above the 2011 state average of 46 percent.

But the cons also are obvious.

Try dating when the only other person in your grade is your cousin.

Try fielding a sports team.

"Obviously, if we want to date (in Leadore), we have to check out the family tree first because we are all pretty much related here," 17-year-old Kauer joked. "The dating scene is pretty minimal."

The senior class has six boys and four girls and only one couple. Prom night generally is a group date between friends.

Kauer was 5 when he attended his first prom with his mom, a teacher.

"We go all out ... prom is quite an affair here, but it is not like anywhere else," Kauer said.

High school sports are challenging because nearly everyone must participate to field a team. The expectation to play is high because should one or two students decide not to participate, the entire team could be forced to disband.

Next year will be especially challenging.

Cousins Brie Beyeler, 13 and AnnaLee Beyeler, 14, are the entire eighth grade. Their situation is a blessing and a curse.

"Class is a lot quieter," Brie said. "We don't get a lot of extra insight from each other because we already know each other's opinions on just about everything."

The Beyeler girls have one or two classes just for them, but generally, two-person classes aren't feasible even though the average class size is so small.

"We get smashed with either the grade above us or the grade below us," AnnaLee said. "It's frustrating ... to get stuck with a lower grade because we've already learned all the stuff."

But the eighth-graders also get to do many academic activities and group work that would be prohibitive in a larger class, not to mention far more one-on-one time with teachers.

Elementary students reside on one side of the building and high school students on the other, but students still regularly interact. Older students read to younger students and are very protective of their "younger siblings," teachers said. Elementary students adore the high school students.

Teachers enjoy watching students grow from childhood to adulthood.

Geary-Smith, a first/second grade teacher, has taught nearly every grade in 24 years.

"We know them and their families really well, which is a good thing," Geary-Smith said. "But sometimes there can be mixed emotions because a student has been labeled in an earlier grade and they don't get a chance to start fresh."

But that problem is rare, she said.

Geary-Smith brought her family to Leadore because it was a good place to raise a family. She loves her co-workers and the district but has considered moving away.

"Sometimes, I think it would be nice to be in a bigger school and have more input and get more stimulating activities," Geary-Smith said. "But things are easier here."

Increasingly, Leadore teachers are considering leaving the district due to budget cuts. Similar to districts across the state -- after years of program cutbacks, depleted savings and vanishing federal funds -- teacher salaries are on the chopping block.

Most District 292 teachers are facing about $4,000 in salary reductions next year.

"The schools will be fine -- as teachers, we can make due with whatever we have," Geary-Smith said. "But the stress and the discouragement in the message (teachers) are being sent from the state makes you want to walk away -- it's hard."

There is a real fear that teachers may leave for more lucrative opportunities, Superintendent Erica Kemery said.

"In a little district like this in the middle of nowhere, you want to take care of your teachers because getting someone to replace them is not easy," Kemery said.

Teachers and staff in Leadore are expected to perform multiple roles with limited budgets for new educational materials and very little modern technology.

The school board is searching for ways to retain teachers. A supplemental levy has been suggested by administrators and teachers but is always rejected by the board. The 600 to 650 people living in the district never have voted on the issue.

"We don't see how the people in the community can afford a levy at this time given the average income of the area," board Vice Chairwoman Deb Foster said. "The board is open-minded, but putting additional tax burden on the people is really tough."

The Idaho Department of Labor estimated average household income in Lemhi County at nearly $31,000 a year. But school officials said the district's average household income is closer to $14,000, based on data collected from the community.

The district also is shrinking. School enrollment has declined from more than 120 students some 20 years ago to about 70 or so students expected next year. Residents blame the decline on fewer young people returning to the area. But no one believes the school or district is in any danger of closing.

"You just can't bus 6-year-olds 60 miles to school -- it's just too far," Geary-Smith said.

Besides, people always will move to Leadore to be close to family or for the peaceful community atmosphere, parent Laura Tomchak said.

Tomchak's family moved to Leadore from Idaho Falls in 2009 to be closer to the family ranch.

"The pros outweigh the cons," Tomchak said. "You don't worry about gangs or bullying, teachers spend more time with students, and everyone gets the opportunity to participate in activities regardless of skill. My kids wouldn't have these opportunities at a larger school."

Nate Sunderland can be reached at 542-6763.

"In a little district like this in the middle of nowhere, you want to take care of your teachers because getting someone to replace them is not easy."

Erica Kemery

District 292 superintendent