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Ending the Long Day's Journey: New School Would Erase 2-Hour Commute

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Every day, a dozen teenagers in the remote west Texas town of Terlingua wake long before sunrise to catch the bus to school.

They munch their cereal, then gather pillows and schoolbooks for the commute to the nearest high school, two hours north in Alpine. At 87 miles, it is the longest daily school-bus ride in the country, according to the National School Transportation Association.

Brewster County students spend almost as much time on mountainous roads, catching up on sleep or homework, as they do sitting in class. And with so many hours of each day spent either in school or getting there, the students have little time to play sports or sing in the choir.

All of that may soon change. A small group of community leaders has joined together in hopes of bringing the students' long journey to an end.

The recently formed Big Bend Education Corporation, a nonprofit organization overseen by the Terlingua and San Vicente school districts, has launched a campaign to raise $3 million to construct a new local high school.

'So Tired'

"The children can't participate in any extracurricular anything," said Kathy Killingsworth,the principal at Terlingua Elementary school anything," said Kathy Killingsworth, the principal at Terlingua Elementary School, one of two K-8 schools in the remote region. "Their day is just school, and when they return, they have nothing to do but go to bed because they are so tired," she said.

Brewster County, where the elementary schools are located, is a sparsely populated desert area, bordered by Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande. One of the schools is centered in the town of Terlingua, while San Vicente Elementary School is located in the 780,000-acre national park.

With fewer than 1,000 residents, the county lacks the ability to raise funds for a new school through local taxes.

So, the corporation is seeking tax-deductible donations to finance construction, and to buy books and furniture. Its members are also applying for a grant from the state to establish a distance-learning program, and have appealed to private and public groups across the country for help.

If all goes well, the new school could open in a limited capacity by August. The corporation hopes to have a fully operational high school with a science room, a library, and a community center by 2000.

"We don't want the kids to go through the misery of the bus ride. We are trying to rectify something that isn't right," said Cliff Haislip, the spokesman for the corporation. "But, we are going to need lots of help."

Reducing Dropout Rate

Ms. Killingsworth and other local school officials say a more accessible high school could significantly reduce the county's high dropout rate.

Many high school students stay with friends or relatives in Alpine during school months to avoid the commute. A few parents educate their children at home.

But, rather than make the long haul, more than 30 percent of the county's students drop out after the 8th grade.

So far, the corporation has raised $600 toward its goal, including a $19 donation from the 7th-grade class at Terlingua Elementary School, whose students are looking forward to having a high school in their own backyard.

"They each gave a dollar and took up a collection to thank us," Mr. Haislip said.

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