State's Smallest School District Bets on Gorman Housing Plan

Times Staff Writer

As a stirring recording of "Pomp and Circumstance" filled the school auditorium, three eighth-graders in blue gowns and mortarboards marched solemnly toward the tiny stage. "Ladies and gentlemen," intoned Supt. Wesley Thomas, "I'd like to present the Class of 1989."

Even for Gorman School, this was a sparse crop of graduates. Last year, it had six.

Located in a small Spanish-style building 65 miles north of Los Angeles, the Gorman School District is, with 49 pupils and only one school, the smallest public school system in Los Angeles County. The rural school is also probably the only campus in Southern California, if not the state, where deer graze on the athletic field and where students and teachers claim a ghost haunts the halls.

Multitude of Jobs

Few districts could make such demands on an administrator as Thomas, who identified himself as "superintendent, principal, teacher of the junior high and part-time bus driver."

But the homespun atmosphere of Gorman's school, which celebrated its 50th commencement in its present home last week, may soon change forever.

The Ralphs family, a pioneer Gorman clan best known for the supermarket chain, wants to build 150 homes on the hills west of the school. If the tract is approved, the district will have to buy classroom trailers or perhaps build a new school, Thomas said. An environmental impact report on the project is being prepared, county officials said.

The superintendent said he has already fielded many calls from hopeful homeowners asking when the houses will be ready. "Lots of people want to move up here from Valencia or Castaic," he said.

Although the proposed housing tract would render the old three-room school building obsolete, the influx of new students could also save the financially strapped district from extinction, he said. School funding is tied to daily attendance, and extra students will funnel extra dollars into a district that squeezes by on a $240,000 yearly budget, Thomas said.

Thomas wants to preserve the school's rural character but realizes that "we need that growth to survive." Unlike the rapidly growing school districts 30 miles to the south in the Santa Clarita Valley, Gorman officials watched their enrollment slip from 63 to 49 over the last year.

Makeshift School Bus

Since March, the superintendent has driven five students to and from school in the family car because it was cheaper than running a second school bus. The major capital improvement this year, Thomas said, was a new set of doors.

But adversity is not new to Gorman School. Ruth Ralphs, a school board member, said the isolated district has learned to be resourceful. "When you're out here, you have to be survivors," she said.

The first area school started around 1906 when children gathered at a local ranch house for lessons. Later venues included a cabin, a prefabricated building and the living room of Ralphs family matriarch Mary Ralphs. The school's present home was built in 1938 by the federal Works Progress Administration, and the first group of eighth-graders was graduated the next spring.

Gorman School has never been prone to swift change. One bus driver served 35 years. Mary Ralphs, in a profound example of the powers of incumbency, stayed on the school board 57 years. She retired in 1965 and died 13 years later at the age of 97. Following Mary Ralphs' lead, other Ralphs family members have served as trustees, teachers, school secretaries and even bus drivers.

Narrow Escape

The 1970s were especially difficult for the tiny district. In 1971, the Legislature narrowly killed a bill that would have eliminated school districts with fewer than 50 students. Funding plummeted after the property tax-cutting Proposition 13 passed in 1979. "We're on the verge of bankruptcy," the superintendent said at the time.

But the school survived. The district hired mainly part-time teachers and rotated their schedules to save on salaries and benefits. The practice continues. Some retired teachers donated their time. "It was very difficult," Ruth Ralphs said. Somehow, money was found for 16 computers, and all grades, from kindergarten to eighth, receive computer training.

Today, the school has four part-time teachers, two full-time teachers, a cook, a secretary and three aides. Kindergartners join first- and second-graders in one room while the middle grades share another.

The sixth, seventh and eighth grades meet in what students call "the big room," which serves as auditorium, classroom and--on snowy winter days--a gymnasium. A basketball hoop hangs from the rear wall.

Since several grades meet in one room at once, teachers sometimes call on older children to help younger students. "Just like a one-room school," said Walter Hanson, a regular substitute teacher at Gorman.

Benefits of Being Small

Some students thrive on the extra attention they receive in a small class. Since enrolling in Gorman School three years ago, "I got a lot better grades," said Christina Arnburg, one of last week's graduates. "Over here, they help you with what you're doing."

In the fall, Arnburg will attend high school in Bakersfield. Other graduates, who live closer to the Antelope Valley, will attend secondary school in Quartz Hill, near Lancaster. Both are about 40 miles away. The students at Gorman live throughout northwestern Los Angeles County, and the district's school bus covers 96 miles each day.

Students come from the communities of Frazier Park, Quail Lake, Three Points and a few from Lebec in Kern County. Some students, Thomas said, are "out in the middle of nowhere."

Gorman is not so much a town as a notion. The Grapevine truck stop off Interstate 5 includes four gas stations, a cafe, a fast-food restaurant, a bar, liquor store, real estate office and a motel. And that's about it.

The county recorder lists 65 registered voters there, 40 of whom are Republican. Other than the school Christmas pageant and graduation, there are no civic activities to bring the Gorman community together. Gone are the days when the Gorman Women's Club, now disbanded, held bazaars and craft fairs at the school decades ago, Ruth Ralphs said.

A Different School Spirit

But the most intriguing feature of the school is the Gorman ghost, supposedly the spirit of a girl accidently run over by a tractor driven by her father. "She was buried underneath what is now the stage," Thomas said.

With familial affection, teachers and students say that the ghost is just another part of the school, as much a feature as the red tile roof, the distinctive high ceilings and the big black bell that signals the end of recess.

The ghost supposedly opens and shuts doors and cupboards. She's allegedly musical. "The piano plays," said Catherine Van, a reading specialist.

According to a Ralphs family legend, the ghost once warned Mary Ralphs not to leave the building. There is danger, the ghost said. Ralphs ignored the warning, walked outside and promptly fell, breaking her arm and hip.

None of the teachers have seen the ghost, but some they said have felt an eerie presence while working in the school at night. Some parents, mindful of the ghost, won't go in the building, Thomas said.

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