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Road less traveled

A makeshift school may bring long-term relief to the teenagers of Terlingua, Texas--and to the bus that used to take them on what was believed to be the nation's longest school bus route.

Six classes began meeting last month in four portable classrooms--paid for with donations raised by a local group--on land donated for a permanent Big Bend High School facility in Terlingua, school secretary Racquel Baez said.

The new school has 37 students, including four from the nearby San Vincente district, which like Terlingua has an elementary school but not enough of a tax base to pay for a high school.

The Terlingua district sprawls across a sparsely populated stretch of mountainous desert near Big Bend National Park in west Texas. The San Vincente district serves the residents of the 780,000-acre park.

For years, a 72-passenger bus took students from both districts on a 90-mile, two-hour ride north to the high school in Alpine, Texas, then back in the afternoon. ("Ending the Long Day's Journey: New School Would Erase 2-Hour Commute," Feb. 8, 1995.)

But the ride proved tough on the students and buses. The bus seats wore out quickly because the students, who boarded as early as 5:30 a.m., would flop all over them trying to sleep.

The lack of sleep, family time, and opportunities to take part in after-school activities were among the students' perennial complaints. Most years, up to 40 percent of Terlingua's 8th graders would drop out of school rather than face the long bus ride.

Melody Clarke, the bus driver who drove the old route twice daily for more than five years, said the long ride--and the school's funding drive--got nationwide publicity after a correspondent for The New York Times rode the bus in 1994. "For a whole school year, once a week we had somebody on the bus, either with a TV camera or pencil and paper but always with photography equipment," she said. "Until all the hullabaloo about it, there wasn't a lot [of money] coming in."

Ms. Clarke has moved along to a trimmed-down version of the route to Alpine High--it's 35 miles shorter, and she now drives a 16-passenger bus.

But no matter the length of her drive, she finds her route beautiful: "My favorite part is early in the morning after everyone has gotten on and gone to sleep--it's just me and the nighttime and the sunrise. You can see the sunrise every morning and the sunset every evening--and to get paid to do that is great."

--ANDREW TROTTER

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