'We Never Considered Putting Them in the Public System'
Later this month, NBC's Today Show will take viewers to the wooded mountains of Northern Idaho, to a makeshift two-room cabin that is a school for a handful of students whose families live in the sparsely populated region.
The television segment, entitled "In Search of the American Dream," will focus on Dee and Norman Newberry, the transplanted Californians who in 1972 bought--sight unseen from a magazine advertisement--the plot of land on which their home and the school building now stand. The couple first offered a few neighbor children kindergarten classes around their kitchen table. They later expanded their teaching activities to include more and older students, and moved the school to a cabin that had been occupied by Dee Newberry's mother.
The Newberry's Santa Creek School is one of a number of such "alternative" schools operating in Idaho, according to a state official. Because state law does not require the accreditation of elementary schools, the responsibility for assuring that alternative grade schools are in compliance with state "guidelines" falls to local school boards, many of whom practice "benign neglect," the official said. Attempts to enact regulatory statutes covering such schools have been turned back in the last three sessions of the Idaho legislature, he added.
Educators across the country are divided on the question of whether any schools should be permitted to exist outside the structure of government regulation, and court cases on aspects of the issue are underway in several states.
"American dream" or not, such alternatives continue to spring up and to attract the attention of journalists. Following is a report on the tiny Emida, Idaho, school, written for the Lewiston Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho. The photographs were taken by a staff photographer for the paper.
Emida, Idaho "No physical violence."
"No teasing the animals."
"No going down by the creek."
The rules posted on the wall of a small, independent school west of here are different from those posted on most school walls. But then, the school itself is a little different.
Cradled in a grove of giant pines on a ridge three miles west of Emida, the two-room building houses 13 students ranging in age from 4 to 36. Homemade curtains frame windows that look out on a creek trickling behind the building.
One room is heated with a small, propane stove, and the other is warmed by an ancient cast-iron woodburner that has a tendency to back up. There are as many goats, dogs, geese, and horses on the playground during recess as there are students, and the outhouse is a corrugated tin lean-to with toilet paper. Textbooks aren't this year's, and many students walk miles or ride their donkeys to school.
The reasons students give for attending the school rather than public schools are as different as the individuals involved.
The one thing they have in common, however, is their search and need for an alternative education.
'Accepted' as an Alternative
Although the school isn't accredited, its founder, Dee Newberry, said, it is "accepted" as an alternative by local public-school officials. (One such official said a better word would be "tolerated.")
Newberry said her school is similar to a local Seventh Day Adventist School and other independent schools that aren't accredited but operate with the blessing of the system.
"This would be illegal if we accepted any pay for this, but we don't," she explained. "We are just offering education comparable to the public schools. If it ever gets to the point where I can't offer a comparable education, I'll quit."
"Babe wasn't learning a thing in public schools," she said of her 13-year-old daughter. "And Michelle [her 18-year-old] was just plain skipping school. She missed 26 days in one semester. I pulled her out and made her start taking classes here and now she's a straight-A student."
Newberry said her children weren't getting the individual attention they needed to learn properly.
"Babe was having trouble with her reading, and she was only getting 15 minutes of special help a week. You don't learn much in 15 minutes a week," she said.
The Newberry girls also had difficulty with the schedule of attending public school. Their mother said that to catch the bus they had to get up at 5:30 A.M. every morning and be out the door by 6:45; they returned home at about 5:00 in the evening.
"Babe was falling asleep in her dinner," Dee Newberry said.
Jackie Knight's 10-year-old son, Chauncey, also had difficulty fitting in at public school. Knight is one of many mothers who help out at the school.
"Chauncey's problem was he just wouldn't do the work. They [public-school officials] wanted to put him back a grade because he wouldn't do the work, not because he couldn't do it," she said. "I had him tested myself and in the 4th grade, he was doing 5th- and 6th-grade work.''
For Barbara, another mother working at the school who asked that her last name not be published, public school was never a consideration. Her children, 4-year-old Autumn Star and 7-year-old Obadiah, have been taught at home until just this year, when she put them in Newberry's school.
Barbara and her children ride their three donkeys from their home on a neighboring ridge to attend school. Jackie Knight and her son pack two miles out to the road and then drive another few miles. The other children walk, ride their bikes, or are driven to school by their parents.
The Newberrys charge $25 per month to cover the cost of heating and cleaning the building and buying materials. But no one is kept from attending classes if he doesn't pay, according to Dee Newberry.
"Some kids have been going here three years and haven't paid a cent," she said. "The difference between what we bring in and what we spend comes out of our pocket. But I think it's a worthwhile cause."
Newberry doesn't have a teaching degree, but studies along with her students in a sort of leading-into-learning process. Course matter includes advanced shorthand, bookkeeping, and typing for the four adult students, and phonics, mathematics, social studies, spelling, and reading for the youngsters.
"Dee always says she's learning, too, so you don't feel like you have to be perfect," said Ruth Ann, 36. She is taking all of the business courses and working toward a General Education Diploma.
Classes Begin at 8:30 A.M.
In order to make it through all of the materials, classes usually begin at 8:30 A.M. with the adults. After lessons in shorthand, bookkeeping, and typing a business letter, the younger children filter in, noisily discussing school work and what has happened since the day before.
The elementary students range in age from 7 to 13, but all are studying subjects and predicates. Newberry writes sentences on the board and makes each student recite what should be done to separate the subject from the verb, whether the nouns are proper or common, and whether the verb is action or being. The group flies through the exercise.
"I think you guys are really beginning to get this," she says.
After the formal lesson, the students automatically move into their individual programs. Newberry sits at her desk at the front of the room and only does a little prodding to keep everyone working.
While the others work, she calls one student at a time to her desk for reading practice. She gives suggestions along the way, but is otherwise silent through the sometimes painful pulling of words from the reading books.
In the other room, the four 1st graders listen to Jackie Knight and Barbara read different stories. They fill out worksheets outlining phonics techniques.
After a morning full of work, the elementary students get a 15-minute recess at 11. They burst through the doors outside and end up watching--and helping--Norm Newberry chop wood. Many are from logging families, so they wield the axe with remarkable savvy.
After recess, the children settle in for another hour and a half of study before lunch hour at 12:30. They are quieter now--most of the energy was released at recess.
At lunch, Autumn Star licks the homemade peanut butter from a stalk of celery and ends up with half of it on her face. A goat butts its head against a fence post in front of the school, and the kids run down to the stream to watch a baby trout living there.
At 1:30, classes resume until 3:30 or 4. Mathematics takes up most of the afternoon.
In each subject, each student can receive some individual help if necessary. At least two parents are asked to come and help teach every day, making the student-teacher ratio about four to one.
Grading is different at the Newberry school, too. Daily work is graded, but if there are too many errors it is reassigned until it is completed correctly, Dee Newberry said.
Some of Newberry's students are advanced for their age. Autumn Star can add and subtract double-digit numbers. She reads as well as a 3rd grader.
Others, such as Kiya Magio, have a little more difficulty. Kiya is 9 years old and has never had formal schooling. He catches on quickly, but is unaccustomed to a school setting. Newberry said he will move out of the 1st-grade class next year.
After mathematics, the students get to move on to a more creative project, cutting out and assembling a "scump"--an imaginary animal made of parts of various other animals. Once they assemble their scump, they write a story about him, each student adding a line to the tale.
"My scump eats hotdogs," the 1st graders' story begins. "He loves them. My scump also eats little children. He loves to hear them go crunch, crunch, crunch."
At the end of the day, the students again prepare to go outside, but are more reluctant this time. They slowly pull on coats and jackets and stand talking with each other. Autumn Star lingers at the teacher's desk long enough to get a hug and then prepares to saddle up and go home.
Outside, a heavy drizzle is falling. Kiya drives off in an old pick-up with his father. Winter Sun hops on a bicycle. Babe walks toward the house.
Barbara, Obie, and Autumn Star cut switches, saddle up, and ride slowly down the muddy road home.
Dee Newberry, however, stays at her desk, grading papers and preparing for another day's lesson at the school.
There are almost as many animals as children at the school founded by Dee Newberry and her husband (opposite page). Parents, like Barbara (right), help with the teaching. Autumn Star, her daughter, rides her donkey to and from the school. Kiya Magio, a 9-year-old who has never gone to a school before, chops wood during recess.