Second-grader Drake Doherty was working quietly at his desk Wednesday morning at Maybell Elementary School.
Occasionally, he would get up and ask his teacher, Rhonda Willingham, how to spell a word for his writing assignment.
“How do you spell female?” he asked. “Is it with a P-H?”
While she worked with a group of fourth- and fifth-graders at a nearby table, Willingham kept one eye on Drake, who wandered to the computer when he finished writing to look up videos of fighting lizards.
“He really likes animals,” Willingham said. “He’s writing about monitor lizards right now. We’ve also written about iguanas and octopi and giant squid.
“The blessing is that we have a lot of autonomy to do what we need to do here. Yes, we follow the rules, but we have more free time to do what’s best educational practice. I mean, where else could a kid look up monitor lizards during class?”
Maybell Elementary School, which Willingham believes is the last remaining one-classroom school in the state, houses 14 students ranging from kindergarten to fifth grades.
The current enrollment is the largest the school has had, due to the reconfiguration that added fifth grade to elementary schools around the Moffat County School District. The students are one cohesive classroom throughout the day, sharing animal crackers at snack time and playing dodgeball together during recess.
They are split into groups during academic lessons, which are taught by Willingham, paraprofessionals and volunteers.
Willingham said most of her students, except for the three who live in the town of Maybell, come from ranching families, and often come to school with tales of horse herding and cattle birthing.
For Willingham, who grew up on a wheat farm outside Craig, the strong personalities and varying backgrounds that make up her classroom are comfortable to her, and fitting to the history of Moffat County.
Her parents attended one-room schools when they were spread across the county.
“It’s amazing the number of older people and longtime residents who came from one-room school houses,” she said. “Moffat County is built on that experience.”
And, they share those experiences, as well as snacks and ideas.
Just after recess Wednesday, the students quietly chewed on chocolate animal crackers, watching as their classmate, second-grader Torin Gray, walked to the front of the room for show and tell.
“I have just a tell,” he said. “Yesterday, me and my dad were cleaning out the barn, and we went to drop a load of manure, and a cow got into the barn and knocked a whole bunch of hay down.
“I think it snuck in behind us.”
After Torin, kindergartener Scooter Hicks showed off a pink bouncy ball she had bought in Grand Junction after her family had sold a bobcat hide.
James Christiansen shared how his dog ate his homework.
Not only do they share life experiences, but older students share knowledge with their younger counterparts. The young students respond by sharing their admiration and curiosity with their role models.
“Kallie (Smith, a kindergartener) got to work on the computer with Becky (Williamson, a fifth-grader) one day and she was just glowing about it,” Willingham said. “The older kids just really step up to be role models.”
Willingham said the biggest advantage of having 5- and 11-year-olds in one classroom is the ability to split children up by level instead of age.
“If you have a kid who’s in second grade but is a really bright kid, you can actually have them work on their level instead of them sitting in the back and waiting for their class to catch up,” Willingham said. “I have a reading group made up of a first-grader, a second-grader and a fourth-grader, and they work really well together. There’s just a lot more flexibility.”
The time the group has to intermingle with students of other ages is crucial to their social development, Willingham said.
If there are any social issues, like bullying or teasing, Willingham will sit the group down in a circle to talk “as a family.”
“They have more time to develop those personalities,” she said. “They’re not worried about fitting in here. It doesn’t matter if you wear the right tennis shoes.”
Willingham said the students develop a strong bond over their years in the Maybell School, but eventually they will leave the nest for Craig Middle School.
Willingham said she and her students will be left with a void to fill when Becky, the lone fifth-grader, leaves.
“Becky is a special girl,” Willingham said. “She’s sharp and she’ll do really well.”
Becky said the thought of leaving her comfortable school of four years is bittersweet.
“I can’t remember what it’s like to be in a big school,” she said. “I’m going to be happy to be somewhere new. But, I’m going to miss it. I like writing, math, the teachers. I like everything about school here.
“I like learning every day.”
Nicole Inglis can be reached at 875-1793, or firstname.lastname@example.org.