If you ever find yourself driving along Panoche Road, you might be surprised when playground equipment seems to appear from out of nowhere. That’s Panoche Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse run by teacher, principal and superintendent Amanda McCraw. She lives on the school grounds with her husband and two kids.
Past Pinnacles National Park is another one-room schoolhouse, Jefferson Elementary School, where Elizabeth Volmer works as superintendent, principal and teacher.
Both McCraw and Volmer found their positions on edjoin.org, a website that posts available jobs in education throughout the country. The fact that the positions came with housing was an incentive.
It was “a huge plus in California, where that can be very challenging for people in education to find,” Volmer said.
Both rural schools have a handful of students. Jefferson has six students ranging from transitional kindergarten to eighth grade. There are four students at Panoche, from second grade up to eighth, and next year the school will add a kindergarten class of three students.
McCraw said working with such a small group of students led to greater job satisfaction than when she worked at a larger primary school.
“My biggest struggle was I felt I was missing teaching the kids who were lower, and the kids that were higher, and I was still having to teach to those 20 kids that were in the middle,” she said. “So I thought that I would have such small class sizes and I could really tailor instruction to each student, one on one, based on their needs and learning styles. That was just a dream come true.”
McCraw created a plan to involve all the students in a project that not only allows them to work together, but addresses the science standards for each grade level and provides hands-on learning experience. Her students are bringing the school garden back to life, and on warm days they work in the garden during their lunch period, getting it ready for planting in the spring.
“It’s something that we can do for all grade levels,” McCraw said. “For our youngest students, kindergarten standards are parts of a plant. Leaves, flowers, stems and how plants grow. Then our bigger kids can learn about photosynthesis. They are all out there working in the garden together, they are hitting their grade level science standards.”
While McCraw and Volmer are able to give each student individualized attention and lesson plans, with a smaller number of students there is also more time for visual and performing arts activities.
Every Tuesday, Susan Biskeborn goes to Panoche to teach a music class. Students receive lessons in singing, piano and the recorder. At Jefferson, Volmer teaches piano lessons with keyboards obtained through a grant from the E Cubed Foundation, whose goal is to bring the arts into rural classrooms.
Volmer also worked with the E Cubed Foundation for a grant to take the students and their families to see the opera Hansel and Gretel in San Jose. E Cubed provided funding for tickets, dinner and hotel rooms.
“It was something they had never experienced before,” Volmer said. “Every one of them could name things that they liked about the opera.”
Students at Panoche asked McCraw to explain how the school’s solar panels worked. As a result, she took them on a field trip to the Panoche Valley Solar Farm.
Though McCraw and Volmer hold multiple roles in their rural schoolhouses, they stressed that they are not doing it alone.
“The San Benito County Office of Education really does a nice job of looking for and providing opportunities for the rural schools, they are very sensitive to the unique needs,” Volmer said. “The parents, the school board and the county come together to really make the most of the benefits.”
McCraw said, “I never feel like I am all on my own.”
A culture of community education is strong at Jefferson and Panoche. Volmer said she recognized “how unique this place is and what a good job the people here do in working together, and utilizing resources, and putting their kids first.”
McCraw wants others to be aware of the one-room schoolhouses scattered throughout San Benito County.
“I want people to know about us, to think about us,” she said. “We need the support of the community that the schools in town get. There are kids out here learning and enjoying their time being kids.”