Head of the class; head of two households

Ken Olinger helps raise two families in Maybell: one at home and one at school

It was 4:45 p.m. Thursday and as the sunlight faded, the smell of homemade spaghetti settled around Ken Olinger. His work week officially ended an hour ago, and a three-day weekend was supposed to have started. Yet, still he sits at his desk.

"People should start coming at about five," he said. "But it's still a little light, so most of them won't be in until a little later."

Olinger was waiting for people to come through the doors of the Maybell Elementary School for its annual spaghetti dinner fund-raiser. As the only full-time employee at the school, he would be the host for many of Maybell's 370 residents and some seasonal guests.

"We're hoping to cash in on the hunters," he said.

Olinger is in his second year as the teacher in Maybell. The two-room school building with a gymnasium and small kitchen was the focus of the town Thursday. Other than the community center, the school is the only facility in Maybell that can hold a community event.

"We pack the gymnasium when we have our school musical performances," said Olinger, after he acknowledged that music was the only subject he didn't teach. "The program will be over at 7:30, but people stay until 9:30 to talk with each other."

Born and raised in Wyoming, Olinger is no stranger to living in open spaces. He applied for the Maybell teaching job after spending time in the eastern plains of Holly.

He taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade science in the town of 800 residents.

"I wanted to be closer to the mountains," he said. "I had been to Craig when I coached in Wyoming. I liked it there, and when I saw the job opening I thought it would be ideal."

He was offered the job in Maybell, and other than the eight-hour trip through the mountains, the transition went smoothly.

"When I got here, they had a town gathering for the start of school with a pig roast and everything," he said. "It was a nice welcome."

A benefit for teaching at Maybell is that the school district provides housing no more than 40 yards north of the school. Olinger lives there with his wife, Kara, and their three children: Madison, a first-grader; Megan, 2; and Jackson, 10 months.

Olinger considers the nine students he teaches a second family.

"It's an intimate setting," he said. "The kids get on each other at times because they are together all day, every school day. It's like we're a family."

The "family" only sees each other four days a week.

"Our students from Dinosaur have a 100-mile round trip, so the extra day off is good for them," he said. "The kids don't waste their day off, because they are helping out at home."

The teacher sometimes spends his extra day in Craig at the school district building or talking with Ridgeview Principal Julie Baker. The small school's curriculum is modeled after Ridgeview's.

"Basically, we're an extension of Ridgeview," Olinger said. "Julie comes out and observes us, and the reading and math specialists come out here as well."

Madison also attends Ridgeview, because her dad didn't think it was best to teach his daughter.

There also are a couple of Maybell Elementary students who travel to Craig for school because "it works better for them that way," Olinger said.

The teacher thinks the ones who stay in Maybell have a valuable experience.

"It's a great setup for teacher and students," he said. "They get a lot of one-on-one attention, but they also have a chance to interact socially."

It's the best of both worlds.

The students get the attention from the faculty the same way home-schooled students do, and they are in a social setting, like a public school.

"I think we send them off well adjusted academically and socially," Olinger said. "When I read in the paper that one graduate is a Go-Getter and a couple of others are writing paragraphs (in the Newspapers in Education section), it shows we prepared them well."

The father of three and husband of a kindergarten teacher has enjoyed his time at Maybell, but does hope to move on one day.

"We would like move on eventually," he said.

"I miss coaching, and Madison is starting to get active in things like soccer and swimming. Kara will be ready to start teaching again soon."

After working for the Moffat County Weed and Pest Control office this summer, Olinger said the county is where he would like to stay.

"I had a chance to travel all around this phenomenal county," he said. "The experience solidified my thoughts about staying here for a while."

While he's still in Maybell, Olinger said he hopes to keep the tradition of molding students into leaders.

"When I'm thanking the fourth-graders for being leaders at their graduation, I'm talking to the third-graders too," he said.

"The fourth-graders take it upon themselves to help all of the younger students and that tradition is passed on each year."

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