- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

RED FEATHER LAKES, Colo. (AP) - Bike rides to school, crowded halls and hot lunches are routine for most of the 29,000 Poudre School District students who live in and around bustling Fort Collins.

But for 150 students whose rural schools are tucked among the mountain forests west of the city, critter drills, morning handshakes and hundred-mile commutes are the norm.

Hot lunches are a once-a-week treat.

Welcome to education at 8,500 feet, the Coloradoan reported (https://noconow.co/1WEdKPQ).

PSD’s three mountain schools at Red Feather Lakes, Stove Prairie and Livermore roll at a much different pace than their city counterparts up to 40 miles away. Up here, grade levels are combined into a handful of classrooms.

Students leave footprints next to animal tracks in snow that blankets the ground even in early May, on school property where it’s hard to tell where the playground ends and the forest starts.

“Their backyard is the mountain,” said Kasey Ross, who drives 75 miles one way from Johnstown to teach a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class at Red Feather Lakes Elementary. “They just go climb rocks and play. They seem more like kids used to be than what kids are today.”

Life in these woods

The schools are as small as they are remote, stopping just shy of 50 students each. Families regularly make harrowing trips to their “neighborhood” schools, a term that’s laughable for the Maybon family. Mom Angela Maybon drives 84 miles daily to get her two children to and from the rust-red school building in Red Feather Lakes.

The Maybon family has lived in the city before, most recently in Loveland. This, their second stint at mountain life, is hectic but priceless.

They live in the unpredictable reality of plowing through snowbanks to reach county-maintained dirt roads. They start the day before sunrise because of the children’s lengthy commute to and from school.

“Even though it’s an hour drive down to town (village of Red Feather Lakes), sometimes it takes you an hour just to get across Fort Collins,” she says. “Up here, there’s no traffic except for the moose. That’s my traffic jam.”

Her 10-year-old son, Nivin, isn’t as sure about the pre-dawn routine when asked if getting up early is worth it.

“No,” he says with a shy grin, shaking his head and adjusting his backpack.

But as the school day warms up in Ross’ classroom, Nivin joins his classmates in shouting a morning manifesto: “I am strong and I am powerful. I deserve the education I get here. I have things to do, people to impress and places to go. Be awesome every day!”

Ross’ students have many of the same obligations as those down the mountain. They work on their morning homework, as dictated by the smart board on the wall adjacent to a red chalkboard that betrays the school’s 30-year history.

As Nivin’s class settles into morning reading and the rest of their day, Angela handles her first recess shift at the school. Though the playground is blanketed with fresh snow from an early-May storm, the temperature is higher than 25 degrees with little wind chill - warm enough to play outside.

Students take turns shoveling snow, pleading for a turn. Animal tracks beneath pine trees beyond a metal swing set spark excitement.

“We saw fox tracks!” a student proclaims, tugging Angela’s arm.

“Did you just see the prints or did you actually see the animal?” Angela asks. “If there’s no animal, we’re safe. If there’s an animal, we have to leave the playground. … We share the land with the animals.”

A quick scan proves a fox left only its tracks and was nowhere to be seen. When wildlife does share the playground with students, it can be cause for alarm.

At mountain schools, “critter drills” are just part of the regular routine. Most of the time the critters in question are moose or mule deer, but can include black bears, mountain lions, coyotes and foxes.

Every time students go outside, a staff member scans the area and makes sure it’s safe first.

Thursdays offer up a special treat - hot lunch. Red Feather Lakes Elementary is too far from PSD headquarters to provide daily hot lunch, so the school brings in food from a local restaurant once a week. The rest of the time, students are on their own.

When the school day winds down, children make the journey back home, winding through pine trees and down bumpy, isolated dirt roads.

With the kids gone, the playground is turned back over to the critters.

Survival of the fittest

Red Feather Lakes Elementary School was on a list of possible school closures in 2009, along with fellow mountain elementary school Stove Prairie.

A recommendation for the closure said Red Feather Lakes students could be bused 24 miles down the road to PSD’s third mountain school, Livermore Elementary, according to Coloradoan archives.

The community was furious.

“Some families are already making plans of moving off the mountain,” one resident, Tom Viola, told a PSD feasibility committee, according to a Dec. 4, 2009, article.

Rachele Schumm, longtime secretary at Red Feather Lakes Elementary School, said the mere possibility of the school’s closure prompted community members “young and old” to come to the school, pack its small gym and plead with former Superintendent Jerry Wilson to give Red Feather Lakes another chance.

“It’s hard to get seniors to come out in a snowstorm,” she says. “They were all here.”

It worked. The school survived.

School staff for Red Feather Lakes and Stove Prairie elementary schools crafted innovation and efficiency plans.

Soaring Eagle Ecology Center was built next door and enhanced Red Feather Lakes Elementary. Now students regularly engage with the nonprofit education organization, learning more about the natural world out their front doors.

The school’s staff and the community worked to provide students new opportunities, whether that means an after-school guitar class, new technology or the chance to learn yoga in P.E.

Slowly, their fates changed for the better.

When Matt Marietta became principal of the mountain schools four years ago, Red Feather had about 20 students. This year, it has more than 40 in grades K-5.

Marietta attributes the boost to more families retreating up the canyon to mountain life.

“Homes that were rented or vacant (in 2012 after the High Park Fire that threatened Red Feather Lakes) are now occupied,” he says. “A lot of people want to live in the mountains.”

The possibility of closure is now a distant, painful memory for the picturesque mountain school.

“Red Feather is alive and thriving,” Marietta says.

The drive to keep that reality is omnipresent in Marietta’s mind.

“When it comes to our children, when is ‘good’ good enough?” he says. “That’s a question I always ask myself. Once you achieve at a high level, you have to maintain it. … We’re always looking to the next step.”

___

Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, https://www.coloradoan.com


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