Here in the desert, where the ruthless sun punishes even the scorpions, a yellow school bus is delivering its delicate afternoon cargo.
Exhausted children in T-shirts and shorts are sleeping on the vinyl seats or staring out the windows as the bus bounces along a rocky dirt road toward a colony of beat-up trailers and mobile homes 30 miles from school.
A thermometer above the dashboard reads 104 degrees inside the cab -- and that’s with the air conditioner running.
“It’s like a sardine can sitting in the sun,” said driver Kate Carrasco.
Scorching heat and vast distances have long been a part of life in the Death Valley Unified School District, whose 78 students are spread over an area larger than Los Angeles and Orange counties combined.
Now, eager to cut spiraling transportation costs and spare children lengthy bus rides, the Death Valley system is thinking about slashing its school week from five days to four -- something it tried briefly 25 years ago.
The idea has won Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s blessing. He signed a law this month allowing Death Valley’s three schools -- and campuses in six other rural districts around the state -- to operate on a four-day schedule starting as early as this year.
The schools would increase their days by an hour or so to meet the minimum class time required by the state -- a welcome change among Death Valley school leaders eager to ease the toll of desert commutes.
Death Valley’s schoolchildren together log 178,000 miles a year on the buses -- the equivalent of circling Earth seven times. Some of the hot, bumpy rides are as long as 60 miles one way.
“It would certainly be humane for the kids not to have to make that bus run an extra day,” said Death Valley Supt. Jim Copeland.
Administrators and teachers believe the shorter school week would improve attendance.
They say students often miss entire school days traveling to doctors’ appointments in Barstow, Victorville or Las Vegas. Student athletes lose additional days commuting to games against other small schools up to seven hours away by bus. With the proposed change, all that could be scheduled for the extra day off.
“I think we’d get more done if we went four, longer days,” said Theresa Thomason, one of two teachers at the 15-student Death Valley Elementary School in the Furnace Creek area of Death Valley National Park. “We tend to run out of time to get everything done.”
Parents have mixed feelings. Many like the idea of getting their children off the buses. Others fear that longer days would tire out students and teachers. Some with small children worry about finding child care on the added day off.
“It’s going to cause a lot of problems for a lot of parents,” said parent Heather Haynes, who drives a school bus five days a week for a school district in nearby Pahrump, Nev. “I don’t feel like it’s a good idea.”
For their part, students are not eager to see the school week slashed. School offers an escape from the isolation of the desert, where families live -- some without electricity or phone service -- amid the district’s 6,000 square miles of scrub brush, dramatic mountains and salt-crusted basins along California’s eastern reaches.
“There’s nothing to do” in the desert, said 14-year-old Autumn Leikam, who lives in a mobile home off a dirt road about 30 miles from school.
Her 10-year-old sister, Amber, agreed. “I’d get lonelier,” she said of the possible three-day weekends.
Amber and her classmates inhabit a land of extremes.
Death Valley registered the second-highest temperature ever recorded -- 134 degrees, in 1913, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Only Libya has been hotter, by 2 degrees.
The area also has the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere: 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin.
And although Death Valley is the driest spot in North America, flash floods can unexpectedly send walls of water, mud and rock crashing through its barren canyons and parched valleys.
One flood struck last month, ripping chunks from a 20-mile stretch of Highway 190, claiming the lives of two motorists and stranding four middle- and high-school students in Furnace Creek, 60 miles from school. A retired teacher now braves dirt and gravel detours once a week to bring the students their assignments and collect homework.
But the flash flood and its destructive aftermath hardly fazed the bus drivers who ply the roads -- passing landmarks such as Hells Gate and Coffin Peak -- with steady nerves and a bit of luck.
Death Valley’s buses have no radios because the equipment is too costly and is unreliable in the remote area. Cellular phones also are often useless in the mountainous landscape. And so when the buses break down, drivers usually have to hitchhike to the nearest town or home and call for help.
“I basically live by truck drivers and nice tourists,” said driver Kristy McAdams, who makes two 120-mile round trips each day between the district’s home-base town of Shoshone and Furnace Creek.
Only one bus broke down in recent years with students aboard, district officials said. It happened about 18 months ago on Daylight Pass about 30 miles from Furnace Creek. The now-retired driver, who was carrying his personal cellphone at the time, miraculously got a signal and reached the school district office. A teacher hopped in a van and drove two hours to bring water and ferry the children back to school. “She deserves an attaboy for that,” Copeland said.
Death Valley has six buses in its fleet. Four have air-conditioning systems; three are in use on any given day. But sometimes the backup buses, with no air conditioning, must be put to use.
Carrasco has vivid memories of those superheated occasions. She handed out cups with ice and squirt bottles. “It was a hot, tired miserable run,” she said of one such drive. “It just sucks your energy.”
But even air conditioning is sometimes no match for Death Valley’s intense heat, as Carrasco experienced recently.
She was driving about 30 miles from Shoshone southeast to Charleston View near the Nevada border. Waves of heat rose off the asphalt as the bus, with 20 students aboard, lumbered up Old Spanish Trail Highway and down into Mesquite Valley. The youngsters sat separated by age: little ones in the front seats and teenagers in the back. Only a few sat together, as most stretched out in their own double seats.
Carrasco kept a jug of water in the front, and some of the students carried water bottles in their backpacks. Several drifted off to sleep. Others wore headsets or played Game Boy.
But the students were a resilient bunch. Those who stayed awake seemed to take the bumps and heat in stride. “I’m used to it,” 11-year-old Tiffany Brunelle said, her chin perched on the edge of the seat in front of her as the bus passed by drab green stands of cactus and creosote bushes. It was clear that visitors on the bus were a welcome break for her.
A few rows back, Amber stared out the window with a drowsy gaze. “It’s not a big deal. It’s normal,” she said of the ride.
Near the end of the run, Carrasco turned onto Rose Avenue -- a dusty road leading through a hardscrabble clutter of beat-up mobile homes, trailers, broken-down cars, rusting oil drums and a graveyard of splintered pallets.
The bus crept along at 8 mph over the dirt road to avoid jarring its engine. Carrasco made several stops. At one, she opened the bus door and a boy began to descend the steps.
“Hold on,” she called out. Then, following regulations, she grabbed her red stop sign and escorted the boy around the front of the bus to his gate as if they were on a dangerous street with a lot of traffic. In fact, not a car was in sight -- just miles of open desert and scrub brush.
Finally, a mile from the Nevada border, Carrasco reached her last drop. Two brothers and their sister were sleeping as the bus approached the dirt path to their mobile home.
“Wake up, guys,” Carrasco called out. “Almost home.”
Death Valley Unified cut its school week by a day in the early 1980s to reduce costs and spare children from the commutes. The school district decided to switch back to a five-day week after falling enrollment forced it to temporarily close its high school.
This time, the four-day week comes with a complicated twist.
The legislation that Schwarzenegger signed this month would require each of Death Valley’s schools to meet annual test score targets or risk having its four-day schedule revoked permanently -- an unwelcome prospect at small campuses where even a few bad test scores can drive down performance.
“It’s pretty risky business,” said Copeland, the superintendent. “If one school doesn’t meet its [test score] target, the whole district suffers. We’ll really have to think about it.”
The Death Valley school board is expected to consider the shorter week in November.
If it makes the switch, it will join what officials think are only two other California schools -- one in Big Sur and the other in Mendocino County -- that operate four days a week, and more than 100 other small rural districts in Arizona, Colorado and other states that have embraced the abbreviated schedule.
Five districts in rural San Diego County -- including the Julian Union elementary and high school systems -- and one school north of Sacramento in Yuba County also will decide whether to go four days.
Although little research exists on the impact of the four-day week on achievement, officials in Colorado, where 52 of the state’s 178 school districts operate on the shorter schedule, say there’s nothing to worry about.
Education officials there looked into the matter recently and found no discernible difference in the academic performance of students on the shorter schedule compared with those on the traditional five-day week.
That’s the hope in Death Valley, where the shorter week has plenty of advocates, including Carrasco, the bus driver.
She said she would willingly go along with the change for the sake of the kids and probably would pick up some school office work to make up for the reduced hours.
Carrasco pondered the four-day driving schedule recently as she started her 6 a.m. run. A brilliant sun was peeking over the mountains and a cool breeze was blowing across the desert floor.
By midday, the temperature would nearly double. But right now, Carrasco was enjoying the moment as she surveyed the empty road and stepped on the gas. “We’re going to have a beautiful ride,” she said.