Park Valley • There are four sixth-graders at tiny Park Valley School this year and Shaylee Rose is the only girl.

Grades seven and eight are entirely female, including Rose’s older sister Aubrey. All share the same classroom under the eye of teacher Hallie Kunzler and an aide, but school work requires Shaylee to spend the bulk of her days outnumbered by three boys.

“I‘m pretty used to it,” she said. “I like it without all the girl drama.”

Located in an unincorporated swath of ranchland in northwestern Box Elder County, Park Valley is among Utah’s smallest public schools, with just 38 students in kindergarten through 10th grade. It’s also one of many rural hybrids in state education, with age-blending classrooms that invite comparison to one-room schoolhouses of the nation’s past.

“‘Little House on the Prairie’ comes to mind because [people] don‘t understand it until they’re here,” said head teacher Melissa Morris, who acts as the school’s lone administrator in lieu of a principal. “We have two teachers and we make it work.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Morris taught kindergarten through second graders penmanship and drawing the alphabet on Wednesday August 30. Park Valley’s head teacher and one of two, she had a class of nine that day, with a teacher's aid, giving students a lot of individual attention.

Park Valley recently abandoned a traditional Monday-to-Friday schedule after getting approval from the state school board in July to operate on a four-day week. Parents and administrators sought the move to cut down on chronic absenteeism stemming from family ranching chores and time-draining errands to Tremonton, Logan and Burley, Idaho.

After 10th grade, Park Valley students transfer to Bear River High School in not-so-nearby Garland for their junior and senior years, typically living with extended family or friends during the school week.

Park Valley’s size also puts it on a creative yet precarious edge with regard to budgets and teaching methods.

It offers few of the electives and extracurricular activities available to students in metropolitan areas. But its techniques are decidedly modern, with virtual courses broadcast via videoconferencing from other schools and a small staff pitching in as paraprofessional educators, cleverly rotating students through age-appropriate course subjects and lessons.

‘Anybody who gets married or has a baby, we’re so excited, just because it means the school is going to keep running.” -- Head teacher Melissa Morris, who doubles as Park Valley School principal.

In Utah’s public education system, school funding is largely based on the number of students who walk through the door, leaving small schools particularly vulnerable to demographic swings. Park Valley’s budget is buoyed by a state program that supports rural schools, but even a slight dip in its student population could slash learning opportunities for its kids, or close the campus entirely.

“Our numbers have been as high as 60 so we have dropped a little,” Morris said. “Anybody who gets married or has a baby, we‘re so excited, just because it means the school is going to keep running.”

Herding the Wild Cats

Running a small rural school like Park Valley, home of the Wild Cats, is world’s apart from inner-city education. Diminished numbers create all kinds of complications.

At Park Valley, Morris teaches kindergarten through fifth grade and Kunzler does grades six through 10. Aides help the pair with a daily dance of managing smaller groups, separate grades, age-specific lessons and interactive videoconferencing across different areas of the school. A third, part-time teacher handles agriculture and career and technical education, or CTE.

“It was really hard for me when I first started,” said Kunzler, currently in her fourth year at Park Valley. “How do I put these kids into a group where they can function and still learn the curriculum that they‘re in.”

Many topics get combined. A traditional student might learn Utah history in grade seven, U.S. history in grade eight and world history in grade nine, Kunzler said, but Park Valley keeps students together and cycles through each subject every three years.

“You can‘t really play basketball with a spread like that.” -- Park Valley teacher Hallie Kunzler, on grouping students ages 11 to 16.

“It‘s just impossible to teach all of that every year,” she said. “I have a bazillion other things. It‘s not like I just teach a class. I teach 36 curriculums in a year.”

As head teacher, Morris also makes staffing decisions and oversees purchasing and state reporting. One of Park Valley’s two bus drivers is a school librarian and classroom aide, while also teaching seminary classes at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints down the street.

On a playground where student ages range from 5 to 16, group activities such as gym classes and competitive sports can quickly become one-sided.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Older girls do doubles jump roping at recess in the gym after lunch at Park Valley School, one of the smallest schools in Utah, teaching children between the ages of 5 and 15.

“You can‘t really play basketball with a spread like that,” Kunzler said. “I‘ve had to change a few games or make different rules for the 10th-graders so the game can be played.”

Ken Spackman, a Park Valley alumni whose daughter Mitzi now attends the school, said students also learn self-reliance at a different pace, especially when they’re uprooted from home for their junior and senior years. A 1987 high school graduate, Spackman still remembers leaving for a larger school.

“At 16, I was turned loose with a pickup and a checkbook,” he said.

Shaylee Rose said she is already excited for when older sister Aubrey becomes a junior in three years. With two younger family members behind her at Park Valley, she’ll be the reigning sibling — before facing the nervous move herself to a student body of more than 1,000 at Bear River High.

“I‘ll get lost in my own school,” Shaylee Rose said.

Filling Utah’s rural gaps

Park Valley is among roughly 80 rural Utah schools awarded extra cash totaling some $31.5 million to fill staffing and other operational gaps created by small student numbers. Money from the state’s Necessarily Existent Small Schools program, or NESS, goes to schools in 25 of Utah’s 41 districts, including Park Valley’s sister campuses at Grouse Creek and Snowville.

“NESS makes it possible to run these buildings,” Box Elder School District Superintendent Steven Carlsen said. Without it, he added, “I’m not sure if we’d be able to pull it off because of that student-teacher ratio.”

NESS cash flows statewide through a complex equation centered on enrollment size and distance from the nearest school.

“There are fixed costs to run a school regardless of whether you have 10 kids or 100 kids,” Assistant State Superintendent Natalie Grange explained. “As the number of students in the school increases, the amount you get for NESS decreases.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Park Valley School students Derek Kunzler and Brynlee Larsen follow math instruction during an interactive video conference with a teacher at Bear River High School in Garland, about 60 miles away.

Even with the extra money, said Carlsen, it’s not always practical or feasible to hire educators in rural settings and open schools for a handful of children. “The pool of teachers in the state and the nation is getting shallower all the time,” he noted, ”and that makes it even shallower out there.”

Box Elder School District received $751,860 in NESS funding this year, according to Utah Board of Education data. At Snowville, two teachers oversee 25 students in kindergarten through grade five while Grouse Creek, a K-10 school like Park Valley, houses seven children and one full-time educator.

“We’re probably just about as small as we would dare go there,” Carlsen said of Grouse Creek. “Unfortunately if one family moved out — I don’t know.”

“They‘re held accountable just like the kids in town.” - Grouse Creek School head teacher Viola Foy.

Viola Foy is head teacher at the Grouse Creek School and splits her time between Utah and Elko, Nev. Like Park Valley, the remote school runs on a four-day week, with videoconferencing to bolster course offerings and every member of the school’s five-person staff helping in the classroom.

“My bus driver has some para-[professional] time,” Foy said. “My cook does the Home Ec[onomics] class and bases it within the kitchen.”

Grouse Creek may be isolated, she said, but its students likely get more individual attention than city peers and are exposed to advanced concepts earlier by virtue of sharing a room with high school classmates.

The format can seem quaint, but Foy emphasized her pupils are held to the same standards as any student in Utah.

“My kids are still expected to pass the SAGE testing,” Foy said. “They‘re held accountable just like the kids in town.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two school buses ferry students to and from Park Valley School, for first bell at 7:40 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug 30, 2017. Having a new four-day school week made for long days that first week of school.

Shutting down Park Valley, Grouse Creek or other rural Utah schools would not eliminate the burden of educating those students. As long as there are school-age children in the state’s far-flung corners, school districts are required to accommodate them.

“We still have to offer an education,” Carlsen said. “It‘s a responsibility that we take seriously.”

Ken Spackman, the Park Valley alum, said it would be “devastating” if Park Valley were forced to close. Any remaining children would likely be bused to the next-closest school, which is at least an extra hour‘s drive in any direction.

“They‘d be four hours a day on a school bus,” Spackman said. “In the winter, they wouldn‘t even see the light of day.”

No place like home

Park Valley began its 2017-2018 school year Monday, Aug. 28, and midway through the first week students and staff were feeling the longer day, extended by 40 minutes to make up for losing Friday.

“The kids, I can see, are a little tired,” Morris said. “We try to do a lot more engagement activities, getting them up and getting them moving so they’re not just sitting.”

Elementary-age children played tag in the school’s cafeteria in a combination of gym class and recess. Older kids bobbed on bouncy exercise balls at their classroom desks instead of chairs.

Mitzi Spackman, an eighth-grader this year, said she already likes the switch to a four-day week.

“I won‘t have to miss as much school,” she said. “We’ll schedule our town trips and work on Friday.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Belt buckles are a common sight at Park Valley School, where many students come from farming and ranching families. That way of life was part of why the school sought a four-day week, freeing students to help with chores and long-distance errands without missing class.

For 10th-grader Derek Kunzler, Park Valley is the only school he’s ever attended. It’s not odd, to him, to share class space, hallways and the lunchroom with 5-year-old kindergartners.

“You help them out as much as you can,” he said. “We all know everyone so we‘re kind of friends, they’re just a lot younger.”

Ken Spackman said the mix of elementary and high school students taught him valuable lessons about respect and inclusion.

“You go out and play a game of softball or football and you have a ninth-grader pitching a softball to a fifth-grader,” the dad said. “It makes the young ones stretch up and it teaches the older ones how to be courteous.”

And while students are taught to pursue their career aspirations, Park Valley’s future is largely dependent on children inheriting their family ranches and continuing a rural way of life.

“Probably Salt Lake [School District] doesn‘t have to worry about cattle prices,” Morris said.

With 16 years of teaching under her belt, Morris is roughly halfway through her education career. She said other job opportunities have cropped up, but she plans to stay at Park Valley.

“I love this,” she said. “This is home.”