Learning as a family, the rural way: School house educates CCSD#2 students high up the mountain

Mike Moore photos
Jess Grant (center) receives help with his school work from Lexus Single (far right) while Layton Single looks on during a regular school day at Boxelder Rural School Jan. 14.

By Mike Moore mike@glenrockind.com

If you didn’t know it was there, you’d likely drive right past it. Following a series of snow-covered hills, open views of the Laramie Range and snowy stream beds with patterns of wildlife tracks, one would never expect to stumble upon a modest school house while driving the hard packed dirt surface of Boxelder Road.
Nestled within a healthy stand of aspen trees, a fully-equipped playground with a climbing dome, roundabout, slide and a handful of swings soon come into view out of virtually nowhere.
Uphill, the Boxelder Rural School – a modular building – serves nine Converse County School District #2 students ranging from first grade through sixth under direction of a single teacher. The school can expand to the kindergarten level, however, the 2017-18 school year has no students fitting the bill.
Upon entering the school, you will find a series of neatly organized desks, a smartboard, library and a media center spaced throughout the two-room schoolhouse. Resting on teacher Misty Haefele’s desk is a fully organized schedule with numerous tasks to complete throughout the day. It is her responsibility to ensure each of her nine students progress through curriculum at an optimal pace to meet state standards.
The task is not an easy one. Before her arrival three years ago, the school went through two teachers in a single school year. The year before that, the teacher only lasted one full school year. Fortunately for Haefele, teaching in a rural setting is more of a homecoming with her upbringing rather than being just a job.
“I know in the past they’ve had teachers that have really struggled up there,” Boxelder Rural School principal Deborah Brown said. “Not just the traveling, but I think that is a lot to juggle.”
Growing up west of Esterbrook, Haefele attended White School for eight years and returned to rural schools as a student teacher for Shawnee School, both associated with Converse County School District 1, later on.
“I’ve been involved in the rural schools pretty heavily for quite a bit of my life,” she said. “It’s like home. It just feels comfortable to me.”
“She’s got all those tricks and abilities and just doesn’t get rattled,” Brown said of her experience with rural schools. “She’s an excellent fit.”
Scheduling and organization are critically important for Haefele to successfully complete her responsibilities as an educator for the varying grades she teaches. It is not in anyone’s best interest to deviate, she added.
“We have to be fairly disciplined and teach kids to be self-disciplined as well,” she said. “By doing that it allows you to have the confidence and trust in them as much as them trusting you to do what you can for them. That’s truly about the only way it really works well.”
A healthy mix of older and younger students allows the student body to work together in many ways to ease some of the pressure from Haefele. Brown notes how the students work together, making it a win-win scenario.
“It’s like a little family,” Brown said. “The nine students know each other pretty well by this time. They’re very close.”
Considering the fact Haefele could spend up to seven years with certain students that go from kindergarten through sixth grade at Boxelder, she agrees there is a family atmosphere present at the school.
“You get so close to your students,” she said. “You see them more than you see your own family in a lot of ways. They’re as much my kids as my own children and I would do anything for them to help them succeed.”
They blossom and grow in a way that they probably couldn’t if they were in a larger classroom setting, Haefele noted. On the other end, Boxelder students don’t get as much time with programs such as art, music and physical education.
“But, what they do get is truly almost one-on-one instruction,” she said. “That flexibility strengthens their abilities to adapt to what they need.”
Since the largest class size at Boxelder this school year is two students Haefele can monitor student progression. If students are quickly picking up the curriculum, they can move on more quickly than in a city school setting.
Older students often assume leadership roles and mentor the younger children if Haefele is busy instructing other students.
“They help each other out a lot,” Brown said. “The kids work together and learn together so it has really been good.”

With CCSD2’s push for technology advancements district-wide, more tools are becoming available and Boxelder is taking advantage. Students utilize computers to conduct various assignments, and something new this year is connecting sixth-grade math students from Glenrock to Boxelder.
Currently, a teacher in Glenrock has a camera on her while teaching, with Boxelder students also on camera following along via livestream. The teacher can even call on the Boxelder students to answer questions or receive feedback.
“We’re celebrating it,” Brown said. “It’s huge. I’m hoping to grow in that area so that they can  have more offerings.”
Brown thanks district technology director Cory Yingling with his work to get the system up and running.
“He has done an amazing job getting that up there, but there is limitation on how much we can stream and have it go seamless,” Brown said. “But we are exploring and seeing other ways that we can make that happen with other subjects. Technology has taken some great strides in this district.”

Most states have done away with rural schools as education funding becomes harder to acquire. School districts statewide have endured significant budget cuts in recent years, with state legislators voting to cut an additional $27 million in the spring of 2018.
Instead of doing away with its rural school, CCSD#2 did what it could to keep Boxelder unscathed through its recent cut and transition to a four-day school week.
“We made the cuts here in administration,” Brown said, who is not only the Boxelder principal, but the Intermediate School and Grant Elementary principal as well. “That kept more teachers in front of students, which we know that has the highest impact. If we say we’re here for the kids, I think we did it right.”

The fact that the nine students at Boxelder are eager to learn and work together really is what makes the school work and thrive, Brown added.
“They’re just a good group of kids up there,” she said. “They’re my favorite rural school kids.”


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