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Country School Honors Past, Embraces Future

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This report originally aired Feb. 15, 2007.


When you think of public schools in San Diego, you probably think of campuses with hundreds of students and work rooms packed with faculty and staff. But not all districts are large. In fact, one district in San Diego's back country is so small, the entire student body has fewer students than a regular elementary school class. Full Focus reporter Heather Hill takes us to an historic Julian school.  

If you've ever traveled the well-worn road to Julian, you know you've left the city behind. Horses ... birds ... and barns are common sights in the countryside. But there's something you may have missed along the way. Nestled among the trees in Santa Ysabel is a hidden piece of local history – a 130-year-old schoolhouse that's survived the test of time. 

Teacher: Do you know how to spell penguin? "Puh," "puh". What sound?

Child: "P" 

Teacher: Nice job making your capital "P."

It's a typical school day at Spencer Valley Elementary. School starts promptly at 8: 10 am. Reading, writing, math and science top the to-do list – just like in most other grade-school classrooms in the county.

Teacher: Now read what you wrote, Derrick.

Student: I like penguins.

Teacher: Right! What a nice sentence.

But the school itself is anything but typical. The staff and students here manage to hold onto a little piece of the past.

Teacher: So everybody...kindergarteners, first graders, second graders...let's come over and talk about math time.

With less than 30 students and only three teachers, it's the smallest school and district in all of San Diego County. At Spencer Valley, children of different ages and grade levels learn together, with the same teacher. Kindergarten through second grade students spend their day in one classroom, while the third through eighth graders take the other.

Dhea Chaplin, Spencer Valley Teacher: I think the biggest challenge is making sure you accommodate all grade levels, especially keeping in mind the standards that we're all responsible for today in education. And for me that's my biggest challenge.

Charlie Beatty, Spencer Valley Sixth Grader: Well, the classes are good because you have the upper grade students and the lower grade students all together, so you can be friends with everybody and not just your age level.

Resident historian Charlie Beatty showed us around. She's one of only two sixth graders at Spencer Valley this year. Our tour started with the oldest and most well-known feature, the one-room schoolhouse.

Beatty: Actually, this isn't the real building. The original one was built in the back in 1876, but that one burnt down. So we built this one up here in 1905.

As the years passed, more buildings were added to accommodate the school's growth. But here, learning isn't confined to just the classroom.

Beatty: These are the garden beds...

Hill: And what different crops do you grow?

Beatty: A lot! Like there's labels...like here's some radishes. Different beds are different plants. And over here, carrots and onions...

Hill: What's your favorite type to grow? Do you have a favorite?

Beatty: The lettuce, because it grows really fast.

Art is a big part of the curriculum here. Julie Weaver, superintendent and principal, says while other districts are cutting arts programs, they remain one of her top priorities.

Julie Weaver: If you're cutting off your arts, I always think it’s like cutting off your thumb. You can't grasp anything else.

And the students seem to like it too…

Hill: So Charlie, I hear that behind these doors is your favorite room in the whole school.

Beatty: Yes, the most exciting room in the whole school as well. It's where everything is so fun, it's just really awesome!

Hill: Well all right, let's take a look.

One of the highlights of the school year at Spencer Valley is the Shakespeare play the students perform in this auditorium each spring. It's a 10-year-old tradition and all the students have a part.

Don Winslow, Play Program Founder: We were looking for something difficult to do. And challenging, and something if the kids managed to pull it off, would give them bragging rights, basically. You know, coming from a very tiny rural school, I think that they had a little bit of an inferiority complex. And so we wanted to give them something to achieve that would puff their chests out a little bit and at the same time be substantive, you know – something that they could really hang onto and enjoy and something that would maybe mean something to them.

Don Winslow founded the Shakespeare program at Spencer Valley. He says although parents now look forward to the school productions, they weren't always so confident.

Winslow: When we first started this program, everyone told us we were crazy. They laughed in our faces, literally. You know, you'd go to a local party and they would just look at you and laugh. And they'd say, “Our kids can't do that. Kids can't do that.” And we would say, “Don't tell them until after they've done it, and then you can tell them they can't do it.”

Kymm Hansen is directing the play this year.

Kymm Hansen, Play Director: I was actually quite fearful to work with kids on Shakespeare because I myself was uncomfortable with Shakespeare, I mean, to tell the truth. And they actually emboldened me, because when I saw them and what they were capable of, I was so impressed.

Spencer Valley's unique size makes activities like gardening and theatre possible. Even lunchtime is unique here. Parent volunteers cook the kids home-made lunches from scratch. It's a big change from how they do it at some of San Diego's largest schools.

This is Jackson Elementary, one of the largest elementary schools in the San Diego Unified School District. And lunchtime here looks quite a bit different. They serve over 700 students everyday.

The San Diego Unified School District is the second largest district in the state, and the eighth largest in the country. The district serves nearly 133,000 students, including those at its 114 elementary schools and 23 middle schools. In contrast to that is Spencer Valley – a single-school district with only 28 students.

Justin Cunningham is the Director of Small School District Services for the County Office of Education. He says one of the biggest challenges is making sure the small schools have the same resources available as those in more urban areas.

Justin Cunningham, County Office of Education: It really comes down to making sure there's nothing that's preventing more academic achievement from occurring. And so that real focus is making sure that just because someone is in a rural area doesn't mean they should have less of an advantage or an opportunity for education.

But Cunningham says there are some definite benefits.

Cunningham: It's kind of like whatever schools feel, small districts feel it more acutely – you know, the strengths and the weaknesses.

But the staff at Spencer Valley seems to agree that what they have to offer is something you're not likely to find elsewhere in the county.

Chaplin: Imagine a child starting in this classroom in kindergarten, and being able to come here until they're in second or third grade – in the same classroom. And I think that stability and that familiar environment that this provides really lends itself to promoting a lot of motivation with the students. This is their second home.

Weaver: I don't know of any other school or place that I've been to where you get people who bring their girlfriend back from New York to show, you know, this was my place.

And for the community at Spencer Valley, the school remains a rare blend of things old and new … a combination that keeps it going year after year.

Chaplin: It was just unbelievable, the feeling that you got ... You had stepped back in time to a little school, a little house on the prairie or something like that. I really feel that here and I think we all do everyday. We're very fortunate. It's just wonderful.

There are currently more than 7,000 eighth grade students enrolled in the San Diego Unified School District. But at Spencer Valley, there seems to be a shortage. They don't have any eighth graders this year.

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