Turning the Page : County's Last 1-Room Schoolhouse Will Expand but Philosophy to Remain

Times Staff Writer

Jane Wingrove once had a desk, a piece of furniture generally considered essential for a schoolteacher or a principal--and certainly for a district superintendent.

At Spencer Valley Elementary School, San Diego County's last one-room schoolhouse, Wingrove is all three. But these days her old wooden desk is lost under a small mountain of books and papers jammed against a file cabinet in the middle of the county's smallest school. By all appearances, the desk's main job is to harbor a dozen pillows that must be put somewhere until rest hour.

It is that way in every corner of the schoolhouse, 826 square feet that is home to 24 children, nine full- or part-time staff members, three computers, two robots, one volunteer, and more tables, books, papers, drawings, typewriters, shelves and assorted school equipment than anyone should cram into a classroom.

But growth, seemingly inevitable even in this rural part of San Diego County, will soon change all that.

In January, construction will begin on a three-room, 5,414-square-foot expansion. Shortly after its doors open again in September, Spencer Valley will lose its distinction as the county's last vestige of an educational era long past.

"Future kids who go there won't be able to say they went to a one-room school," said the Rev. Paul Dinkel, a school board member who has three children at the school. There is "a little sadness in seeing one more piece of our history pass. We're not tearing it down. It'll still be there. But it won't be exactly the same."

Despite such remorse, the people who run Spencer Valley school and send their children there say a one-room school is more a philosophy than a building, and they promise few changes when Wingrove--and even her secretary--are able to sit behind their own desks.

"We don't intend to have it change," said Luanne Lynch, who teaches at Spencer Valley three days a week. "We're really going to work toward it being a one-room schoolhouse . . . . This is a family, a family school."

"I think we're going to have to learn to adapt to it, to make sure that the community spirit that has developed in this environment continues," Wingrove said. "We're just going to make that a priority."

Advances in school transportation, population increases and building obsolescence have steadily closed the nation's one-room schools since 1930, when 149,282 of them dotted rural regions. In 1983, there were just 798, according to the latest available federal figures.

In California, there are 39, down from about 150 two decades ago, said Ernie Lehr, director of the Division of School Facilities and Transportation in the state Department of Education.

About 4,000 feet up in the foothills below Volcan Mountain and three miles from Julian, 110-year-old Spencer Valley school sits under oak and walnut trees, which are now shedding yellow leaves. The original building was torn down and rebuilt in 1905. Much of that clapboard structure was put atop a new foundation in 1975 to conform to state earthquake standards.

Its rope-pull school bell, in a cupola atop its small, shingled roof, can be heard across Spencer Valley. A thatch of pampas grass grows behind the school, not far from the outdoor plywood stage and the tree house the children built two years ago.

But it is the inside of the school that is truly different.

In the six years since she took over as "teaching principal," Wingrove has fashioned what some would consider an alternative school; others call it an extended family.

There are no desks, just circular and semi-circular tables where children congregate for lessons. Wingrove gradually removed the desks she found when she came to work at the school, to foster interaction among students of different grades.

Technically, kindergartners have one corner of the room, first- and second-graders have another, and third- through fifth-graders have a third. But that is hard to tell from a visit to the school, because Wingrove encourages the older children to help and play with the younger ones.

"When I came, the board had asked me to build community," Wingrove said. "They didn't do a lot of total class activity. The thing they were looking for was to build community among the kids and the parents."

The school, the only one in the Spencer Valley district, is not for everyone. About half of the district's children attend a more traditional elementary school in Julian. About half of Spencer Valley Elementary's enrollment commutes from Julian.

Students are often responsible for choices made by teachers in other schools: when to study math and when to study English; how to plan the Christmas program.

"When you go through your student teaching training, you almost get a power thing; you're almost a dictator," said Cyndi Harkins, another part-time teacher. "And that's not here. (Students) are more equal. They make more of the choices."

"Instead of looking on the board and there's your assignment, it's all from the teacher," said fifth-grader Arek Boulding. "We have freedom of choice. We can scramble the order. We can pick what we want."

Hugging and hand-holding between staff and students--avoided in some schools because of fears it will be misinterpreted--are routine. When a school board member and father of a former classmate died suddenly two weeks ago, studying stopped while children gathered to discuss the loss and draw cards for the family.

Perhaps most importantly, the staff seeks to build self-esteem and independence among the children as a foundation for future learning.

Wingrove, the school's 58-year-old matriarch, is "a warm and supportive person who manages to ride herd on what appears to be a very confusing kind of environment," Dinkel said. "The verbal and non-verbal attitude is, 'Every one of you is important, and I'm proud of every one of you and what every one of you is doing.' It becomes a community. There is no anonymity."

"That's the whole idea, the caring attitude," said Jane Hekel, part-time secretary at the school. "It's so much an extended family that . . . you look at the children as almost your own children."

But the building that fosters that sense of family also exacts a price from the staff and students at Spencer Valley.

In the 6-foot-by-10-foot room that serves as an office, Wingrove must slide sideways to edge between Hekel's chair and a photocopier. Hekel, who is nearly 6 feet tall, works all day on a 2-square-foot piece of shelf, hemmed in between a large electric typewriter and a tall portable file cabinet.

"Sometimes I get really excited, and I move the typewriter over three inches and make room for legal-sized papers," she said.

Wingrove and the teachers keep much of their paper work at home. A trailer and a storage shed are filled almost to overflowing with materials and equipment for which there is no room. The school's three personal computers are wedged virtually screen-to-screen in a corner. Speech therapy has been given in the school's minute kitchen, or outside on a picnic table.

It became clear about 1980 that the school would have to expand. In 1981, a study conducted by the state projected that the school's enrollment would increase from 30 in 1982 to 75 in 1987.

Originally, Wingrove wanted to add only one room, but to keep from requesting further state aid for expansion in the future, the school board ultimately decided to add three rooms and 5,400 square feet.

The State Allocation Board, which selects and pays for school expansion projects, gave the project 480 "priority points" on its ranked list of school needs. Generally, 60 points is enough to win funding from the board, said Carl E. Carmichael, deputy local assistance officer with the state Department of General Services.

The $734,000 project calls for three separate rooms to be clustered around a courtyard behind the existing building, connected by outdoor pathways. One will be an administration building and meeting room furnished with Wingrove's old desk and a potbellied stove; a second will house computers, a science classroom and a library, and the third will be a multipurpose activity room that can be used as classroom space.

Contractors will also pave the dirt parking lot, build new basketball courts and construct a sand volleyball court. The school's surroundings will be spruced up.

At Spencer Valley and in the surrounding community, sorrow over the change has given way to the knowledge that the added space will improve children's learning opportunities.

"The need for space outweighed all that," said Tom Helmantoler, a school board member. "There's a time when you just have to move ahead."

"It's almost like a shrine to me, something holy and great," said Anne Ritchie Farley, whose father taught at the school at the turn of the century. Farley attended the school, as did her children and her grandchildren.

"There's just some things in life I find that you can't change, so you just have to accept," she said. "As long as the bell rings over there . . . I feel that our world is all right."

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