- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Harmony Elementary School lives up to its name.

Located about 20 miles from Laramie, just off Wyoming Highway 230, the school is home to a small, close-knit community of four teachers and about two dozen students.

The location offers a scenic view; the Snowy Range serves as a backdrop to the west, and golden eagles can often be spotted just a short distance away.

Many of the students are from the nearby community, and several grew up in agricultural households. Throughout the years, Harmony has also had a number of children from Colorado, who live on ranches close to the school.

“We do have some town kids who come out, and I think it’s a good setting for some kids,” said Barb Farley, Harmony principal. “I think some parents recognize that it’s small and quiet, with a small class size.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt Harmony has some of the “best teachers in the district,” she said, or that the school offers a unique rural experience.

“It’s a very busy, wonderful group of kids,” Farley said. “Lots of energy and lots of fun. They keep you on your toes.”

Past and present

Harmony is divided into two parts: the main building, where student classrooms are located, and an adjoining building that once housed the school itself.

Today, the old school is home to the art and music classrooms, a school library and a basement storage area.

The hallway is decorated with a series of old photographs in wooden frames, each showing a former class of Harmony students. The images date from the early 1960s and continue into the present day.

“‘I think it’s kind of cool that they keep these old pictures up here,” Farley said. “The kids will come and say, ‘That’s my grandpa’ or ‘That’s my grandma.’”

The school’s gymnasium features murals painted by the students, who worked with regional artists to create visual depictions of Wyoming’s natural resources and geological formations.

“The kids, they tied it into history, they did all the history behind it,” Farley said. “They studied land formations and then they actually painted the pictures with the artist teaching them how to do that.”

Farley is heavily involved in Albany County School District No. 1; in addition to being Harmony’s principal - a position she’s had for the past eight years - she is also principal at Centennial Elementary School and works on the district’s professional development team. But she always makes sure to visit each of the schools about twice a week.

“The rural schools were with in-town elementary school principals,” she said. “And they have so many students - it was hard to be able to come out more than once a week. And at that point in time, the administration just said, ‘Let’s give them someone who can spend a little more time.’”

For teacher Molly Peterson, Harmony’s location and size are perfect for taking students on field trips.

Her students regularly travel to Chimney Park and, in September, they joined Centennial students on a multi-day journey to Cody and Powell to visit Heart Mountain and explore museums.

In 2014, for her class’s winter ecology unit, students spent time snowshoeing, studying animal life and learning about snow.

“We tracked animals and things like that, so that was a lot of fun,” she said.

Many of the trips offer hands-on education for the students. Farley remembers accompanying the class on a trip where they learned how to make a snow cave, and how there needed to be a certain amount of snow packed down for it to be effective.

“By the time they got the snow cave made and you were actually in it, it was actually warm,” she said.

After 10 years at Harmony, Peterson said she values the intimate environment the school provides.

“I enjoy the small class size and the fact that I get to keep the kids for several years, so that we really can build into subjects easily and know what they’re up to,” she said. “I feel like I really get to know everyone.”

A close community

Fifth-grader Jack Bullock and fourth-grader Barbara Martin said they were initially shy when they transferred to Harmony - Barbara arrived as a first-grader, and Jack came to the school this year.

But that has since changed, they said - they now have lots of friends.

“You get included,” Jack said. “Everybody includes you.”

The teachers and principal are “nice and friendly,” he said, and he enjoys being in Peterson’s class.

“She lets us do a lot of reading, and she doesn’t give us too much homework,” he said.

For Barbara, going on field trips with her classmates is her favorite part of school, along with singing in the school choir, drawing in art class and learning about math.

“The classes are very fun, and we get to see other schools on some days and go some places with other schools,” Barbara said. “And the classrooms are very friendly and very fun.”

Coming to Harmony was also a big change for teacher Shawn Green, who just started his second year at the school. He previously worked at Beitel and Centennial elementary schools.

The transition to a rural school was a “dream come true,” he said.

“It was nice,” he said. “I like the one-on-one with the kids, getting to really know them. Smaller class sizes was a good change for me. I got to know the community and the parents - it’s amazing how involved these communities are with the school.”

Parents regularly participate in student education at Harmony, Farley said; they often hold fundraisers and volunteer at the school.

“It’s kind of an open-door policy,” she said. “Parents come in, they can help with a classroom. I would say, for the most part, they’re pretty involved.”

Fostering independence

Teacher Susan Taucher has been at Harmony for a quarter of a century. Multiple generations of students have passed through her classroom, and it isn’t unusual for her to teach students whose fathers and uncles she taught decades ago.

Like the other Harmony teachers, Taucher teaches multiple grades; her class currently contains three first-graders and one kindergartener. In previous years, she handled up to four grades at the same time - a challenging task that helped students become more self-sufficient, she said.

“I think it gives them more responsibility, because they aren’t always being directed by the teacher,” she said. “They get that independence built into the day where they’re responsible for what they’re supposed to be working on.”

And there are other benefits to multi-age classrooms, Taucher said.

“My little kindergartener sits there and listens to the first grade lessons,” she said. “And I know she’s learning from it. So she’s going to be so much more ready when she gets to first grade.”

Students don’t typically have trouble adjusting to post-Harmony life, she said, and teachers prepare them well for the switch.

In the past, children partnered with former Harmony students who walk them through the basics of attending classes at Laramie Junior High School, she said.

And while students are quick to make new friends, there’s still something special about how Harmony students remain close to their childhood friends, she said.

“They still kind of always keep buddies with the ones that they started with down in elementary school,” she said. “I think that’s kind of cool.”

When she first started working at Harmony, Taucher didn’t know it would be the beginning of a 25-year career at the school. But she’s glad it was.

“I remember thinking when I was coming out to a rural school, ‘I don’t know if I would do this for long,’” she said. “And 25 years later, it’s the best place in the world to work. I can’t imagine being anyplace else. It’s wonderful.”

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Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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