A Little Red School : Landmark: Santa Paula's one-room schoolhouse has graduated generations of local students, some of whom are now trustees of the tiny school district.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun had just risen over the foothills of Santa Paula, but second-grader Twila Johnson was already hard at work, squinting through her glasses at a page of arithmetic.

On a wall of the one-room schoolhouse, looking down over the 8-year-old girl and her classmates, was a faded photograph of her great-great-grandfather, a man named Matthew Atmore.

"My great-great-grandfather was the one who built this school," said Twila. "It makes me feel kind of famous."

The 94-year-old Santa Clara School, known better in Ventura County as the Little Red Schoolhouse, stands out in a rural area of Santa Paula as a remnant of the past.

Tucked between thickets of citrus groves and pepper trees, it is one of the last examples of the frontier school to be found in Southern California.

Daughters and sons of the farmers and ranchers who homesteaded the area learned to read and write within the same walls where 35 children from kindergarten through sixth grade study today.

Some students complain that there are problems in attending a school which has little of the curricular variety that many other elementary schools offer.

But parents and school officials see that as a trade-off, saying that the children of Santa Clara School get more personal attention than students who attend larger school districts elsewhere.

They speak of the scenic one-room school as a place where the main emphasis is on basic educational values--the same three Rs that have been taught at the Little Red Schoolhouse since its inception.

Throughout California, the trend is away from such vestiges of frontier American education. Between 1985 and 1989, the number of one-room schoolhouses in the state shrank from 42 to 32 as districts consolidated or built extra rooms to accommodate growth, according to the state Department of Education.

But even as other one-room schools are fast becoming extinct, school officials say the Little Red Schoolhouse, the only school in a special district of about 100 voters, is in no danger.

So strong is the faith in the school's approach to academics that its trustees could find no compelling reason to link up with larger, better-financed school districts, they said.

"There doesn't seem to be any reason for it," said Jean Faught, a school trustee. "If there were some really honest, valid reasons, I'm sure it would be considered."

At the moment, however, there is one concern for the trustees of Santa Clara School. The school's principal and only teacher, Valerie Sare, is planning to resign after 15 years and the district has not found a replacement.

Stricken with multiple sclerosis, Sare said she has become too dependent on her wheelchair to keep teaching.

Sare will remain for the rest of the school year, however, maintaining an iron grip on the class where students are expected to apply themselves to her standards and to keep up with their homework even when they are sick.

The schoolhouse on Telegraph Road is actually the third classroom built in the district. The first classroom, built in 1879, had only one door, two windows and was plainly furnished with wood benches and a blackboard constructed of planks painted black.

The one-room school was replaced in 1896 with the building that stands today. The schoolhouse, built at a cost of $2,634, remained a plain battleship gray until the 1960s, when it re-emerged with a coat of brilliant scarlet.

It was the bright red building that caught Sare's eye 15 years ago when she passed through town with her mother on vacation.

"I said, 'You know what I'd really like to do is teach at that little red schoolhouse,' " Sare recalled telling her mother. A week later, her mother discovered the teaching post was vacant, and Sare snared the job two weeks before school started.

Sare said she treats her students as family members, her classroom more a home than a school. There students get Sare's homemade goodies each Monday for excelling on lessons, but they also have chores.

They learn to find their own supplies, raise flags in the morning and lower them in the evening. Sare's two daughters have worked as teaching aides and her son developed the computer program she uses to keep grades.

Some families have sent children to the school since the 1870s, children who returned as adults to become trustees.

The line of alumni for one such family can be traced through four generations, from Myrtle Dudley, one of the first school trustees and chronicler of the school's history, to Kim Harmon, 7, now a second-grader in the school.

Robert Dudley, 60, is Myrtle Dudley's son and Kim Harmon's grandfather. He remembers pumping water from the schoolyard well and ringing the school bell as a child attending school during World War II.

Dudley recalled bombing drills at the school in which children were told that the best defense against possible strafing from Japanese bombers was to dive behind a grove of pepper trees.

Although no Japanese warplanes ever ventured into the Santa Paula area during World War II, Dudley said the students at the Santa Clara School were always eager to have an excuse to run out of class.

"The teacher would get a call from civil defense, she'd say 'Air raid!' and the kids would just head for the door," said Dudley. "I remember there were enough trees for all of us."

These days the students at the Little Red Schoolhouse have no enemy air attacks to worry about. But they do have to worry about the sometimes difficult transition from life in a one-room schoolhouse to the more competitive setting of modern junior and senior high schools.

Some students complain that they miss a varied sports curriculum and some former students say they were unprepared for junior high and high school.

"You hear some people bemoan the fact that students don't get the education they get in the larger schools," said Henry Heydt, assistant director for school facilities for the state Department of Education.

Despite the lack of variety in programs and equipment, Heydt said that students from one-room schools across the state excel once they reach junior and high school because "in a one-room school situation, you can't be a prima donna."

At the Little Red Schoolhouse, students still eat together, play pranks together and take exams together much as they did a century ago.

On a recent morning, children trickled into the school and quietly took their seats. Talkers were admonished, and the children spent most of the day reading or doing their sums.

Evidence of the diverse ages of the students in the one-room schoolhouse was visible in the desks of different sizes that stood side by side, the basic primers on shelves next to more advanced readers and a row of Apple computers contrasting with the popcorn and paste drawings on one wall.

As the students worked on their lessons, Sare maintained that the one-room schoolhouse is just as good a learning environment as that of any other school.

"See that student there at the small desk? I don't make her stay at a big desk because she's little. I don't make her stay in a kindergarten book if she can do better," Sare said.

One of Sare's former students, Todd Diamond, 19, now a student at Ventura College, said that because Sare pushes her students to work at their maximum capacity, they sometimes end up doing advanced work at precocious ages while still attending the Little Red Schoolhouse.

As a third-grader, Diamond said, he learned to write research papers while keeping up with extracurricular activities. Because of the small school setting, students couldn't escape work Sare had assigned, he said.

"I felt I was doing a lot harder work than the people in town," Diamond said.

The transition to the junior high school in nearby Santa Paula was tough but not impossible, Diamond added. He said he was scared at first by the mob scenes in the hallways as students rushed from one classroom to another every hour.

But he quickly adjusted, Diamond said, and began to like the experience of meeting more students each period than he had known during all his elementary school days.

Among Sare's current students, there are also some complaints mixed in with general praise of the one-room schoolhouse.

Fourth-grader Kevin Ball, 9, whose surfer-style crew cut and chartreuse shorts belied his rural surroundings, has accepted the fact that there are only four other fourth-graders in the school.

The mix of older and younger students sometimes causes clashes. On one recent field trip, some of the older boys complained that going to a petting zoo would be too "dumb."

"I didn't know what to expect from the trip. All the older boys wanted to stay here, and then they liked it when they went," Kevin said. "They said it was probably going to be dumb, but it wasn't."

Most of the students learn to live with each other's flaws and attributes, helping one another with class work whenever possible. Because of Sare's illness, students even learn to teach each other.

"Some of the other kids come to our desks, and we give them the help they need. We help them read directions because they can't read well yet," Kevin said. "But some of us give the first-graders too much help--they give them the answers."

Twila Johnson and Kim Harmon are best friends, but they say there are two people in the school they hate. In a school that small, Sare says, students have to adjust.

"I guess we have to live with it," Kim said.

With all its limitations, students say they prefer coming to a school where everyone knows their name and where younger students look up to older ones.

Even though there are days when there aren't enough people to play a round of dodge ball, Kevin said he would rather attend the one-room school.

"It's different than other schools, that's what I like about it," Kevin said.

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