Teacher, Principal, Nurse, and Snake Wrangler: In This Wyoming School, One Woman Does It All

Students run around the old Red Creek Elementary schoolhouse in rural Natrona County, Wyo. The school is currently housed in the two-classroom trailer. The third classroom is outside: It’s the sprawling prairie and foothills, the ridges, the anthills, the coyote scat and the roaming cattle where the school's nine students have science class and explore and learn about their world.
Students run around the old Red Creek Elementary schoolhouse in rural Natrona County, Wyo. The school is currently housed in the two-classroom trailer. The third classroom is outside: It’s the sprawling prairie and foothills, the ridges, the anthills, the coyote scat and the roaming cattle where the school's nine students have science class and explore and learn about their world.
—Josh Galemore/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP
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Casper, Wyo.

There are two classrooms in the trailer that is Red Creek Elementary. There are cubbies, hooks for jackets, a cluster of desks, a bathroom, a whiteboard, posters with owls and educational platitudes. There's a desk for the teacher, some tables, a cabinet stuffed with balls, a purified water fountain.

The third classroom is outside, past the blue playground equipment and the field of wildflowers next to it, past the asphalt driveway and the metal cattle gate that blocks it. It's the sprawling prairie and foothills, the ridges, the anthills, the coyote scat and the roaming cattle. This is where the nine students who call Red Creek home have science class, where they explore and learn about their world. Here, off of Highway 487, 35 minutes from Casper and 55 minutes from Medicine Bow, Wyoming's rural heart meets its public education mission.

Today, on this early May morning, the class is walking into this third classroom for the first time in 2018. It's warm outside, and the snow is gone. The students' backpacks are filled with binoculars, plastic containers to hold bugs, jackets in case it rains, sunscreen, snacks and notebooks in which to make "observations" about what they see. They're wearing hats and hiking and cowboy boots.

Shelie Elliott, the school's teacher and principal and nurse and emergency snake handler, teaches science classes outside because why wouldn't she? The science of these rural students' lives is in the land that surrounds the trailer. This is their world, she says, where they live and their parents work. The school doesn't have science over the winter, she explains, and instead focus on other subjects.

Like districts across the state, the Natrona County School District has a handful of rural schools like Red Creek. Midwest is the largest, but there's Poison Spider, too, and Alcova and Powder River.

They're schools that are directly tied to the people who live near them. Powder River, for instance, closed last year because its students left. They exist when the community needs them.

Elliott says that as far as she's concerned, this is the best job. She'd retire before going back into town and teaching at a larger school. With the help of an aide, she teaches kindergartners through fifth-graders at once, which allows her to "mush" the rigid grade lines of bigger schools and help older students who may struggle with concepts they'd learned in years past. Because she teaches every student, Elliott knows the struggles of each kid.

"When you're out here, you rely on each other," she says. She lives 20-some minutes from here, off of Zero Road. But for a while, Elliott says, she lived in the second trailer that's next door to the school. She'll still stay there sometimes, when the weather is bad.

"(The students) all know each other," she continues. "They all grew up together. Everybody is connected. ... The kids out here deserve to be educated."

Red Creek Elementary students Oliver Nelson, from left, Kadin Pollock and Luke Nelson work on homework assignments in a small crevasse during a school outing in rural Natrona County, Wyo.
Red Creek Elementary students Oliver Nelson, from left, Kadin Pollock and Luke Nelson work on homework assignments in a small crevasse during a school outing in rural Natrona County, Wyo.
—Josh Galemore/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP


Today, they'll receive that education outdoors. As the sun begins to rise, Elliott, aide Stephanie Comstock and the students all file out of the trailer, across the parking lot, through the gate—which they lock behind them—and onto a gravel road that leads away from the highway and the school.

They have a long class ahead of them. They'll travel up this road a little ways, then cross into the grass and brush, up and over ridges, to the old, one-room schoolhouse that used to be Red Creek. From there, they'll travel down another dirt road to the 3-J Ranch, whose owners let the school wander and learn.

As they begin their walk, the moon sits low in the sky.

"Hi, moon!" one boy calls out cheerfully.

"Somebody point north!" Elliott calls to her class. She's near the front, Comstock near the back, with most of the students spread out between them. Up ahead, third-grader Benaiah walks alone, hands gripping the straps of his backpack, cowboy hat pulled down over his brow.

A bunch of little fingers point south.

"That's not north!" Elliott cries back, mock-despairingly.

As they walk, they observe. One student calls out ants. Elliott says she's more interested in the scat next to the colony. It's from a coyote, another student judges.

"I believe so," Elliott agrees.

Further on, there are holes in the ground. Elliott stops the procession. "Wait! Let's talk about this! What did this?"

"Moles!"

"Who said that? Kindergartner! Say it!"

The kindergartner—there are two, Huck and Trapper—repeats himself. Moles!

Or voles, Elliott adds.

"What's a vole?"

"He has chipmunk cheeks—he has pockets, and he puts food in there," Elliott says, excitedly. Then, as the kids ponder that: "Yeah. It's gross."

A cow and her two calves are lounging up ahead on the road. Elliott asks the students how to stay safe around cows.

"Don't get in front of them!"

"How does it feel to be rolled by a cow?" she asks.

"Horrible!" nine voices offer up in unison.

Eventually the class veers off of the road and into the grass. The students offer more advice, like how to best kill a rattlesnake ("Don't tell the kindergartners that," Elliott sighs). She instructs her students to make observations and then come up with a hypothesis. They practice. Observation: It's dry. Hypothesis: There will be less wildlife around.

It's a theory that's born out: Other than the cow and her calves, the class comes upon no critters, very little scat and no bones. The students scribble observations and notes about what they do see—flowers, ants, animal holes—in Disney and Lego and Angry Birds notebooks.

Huck Neumann, a kindergartner at Red Creek Elementary School, looks through binoculars during a break in a field trip hike through the 3-J Ranch in rural Natrona County, Wyo.
Huck Neumann, a kindergartner at Red Creek Elementary School, looks through binoculars during a break in a field trip hike through the 3-J Ranch in rural Natrona County, Wyo.
—Josh Galemore/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP


Just before 10 a.m. the little train reaches the Old School, where Red Creek students of years past learned. The white building with its red roof is nestled at the base of some hills off of a dirt road that leads to the 3-J Ranch. A portable toilet, apparently abandoned from some event long ago but still usable, sits out front. Behind the schoolhouse is a single-room log cabin, also with a red roof, where previous Red Creek teachers would live.

Inside, the Old School—as Elliott and the students call it—is empty but for some benches, some folding chairs stacked near the door, a drawer, a brown wooden cabinet, some Christmas tinsel. Inside the drawer is an old voter registration card. Huck, who's become enamored with a pair of binoculars, peers out the window of the school. In the cabin, there are more chairs and folding tables. A tall, cylindrical trash can overflows with garbage.

Elliott explains that the school moved closer to the highway because school buses had a hard time getting out here after heavy snowfalls. Now the Old School is a science day stopping point.

They dwell briefly here before setting off again. Elliott stoops to pick up Huck's hat, which is in the middle of the dirt road.

"We need to organize Huck," she tells Comstock.

"What does organize mean?" Huck asks her.

"It means you're a mess," Elliott replies, smiling.

As the sun rises and morning slips into afternoon, the class makes its way down the road onto the ranch. They pass a tree, a herding dog and some horses grazing in a field. They hop over a small creek behind the ranch and spread out in the shade of a rocky outcropping, which they call Shady Rock. As some cows lounge in a nearby field, Elliott gives the class an assignment.

Third- through fifth-graders write a sentence about what they've seen so far today. The first letter in each sentence should spell out spring, she instructs, and each sentence should have to do with season. Second- and first-graders wrote one word for each letter. For the first time, the class falls silent as the students think.

P is for poop, first-grader Amos writes.

"Poop? Spring reminds you of poop?" Elliott asks.

"Because of scat," Amos replies seriously.

"Because we go around looking for it," Elliott agrees. "That's right."

Oliver, a second-grader, writes summer, pollen, rocks, ice cream, "nuckles" (because he punches the ground in the spring, he explains, but not in the winter or summer) and guns. Amos, meanwhile, is trying to draw the caterpillar that he caught, but it's moving too quickly to sketch. He's gathered a handful of furry caterpillars in a little plastic box and wants to write about it, but he and Levi, a second-grader, can't figure out what the plural form of "caterpillar" is.

The class wraps up its assignment and trudges across the field and up a steep hill, the slopes for which are covered in shale. At the top, where they can see their world, they sit in the shade and eat lunch. Amos, who's managed to add a few grasshoppers to his caterpillar collection, asks Levi if he wants to be "best bug buddies."

"Of course," Levi replies cheerfully.

After lunch, the class cleans up and walks a few feet further up to the top of the hill, where there's brush atop the shale. As Elliott points out to distant mountain peaks, she suddenly yells. There's a large rattlesnake coiled beneath the shade of a bush. She pulls the students away and sends them back, further down the hill.

As Comstock gathers the students, Elliott stands a few yards away from the rattler, pondering it.

"I have nothing to kill it with," she says, as if trying to figure out a math equation. She stands there and looks at the animal for another moment before turning around and walking back to the students.

"Snakes are not something we mess around with," Elliott tells them. It's the only time all day there's been a hard edge in her voice.

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But her tone softens quickly as the class moves back up the hill, a safe distance from the snake, and continues looking at the horizon. The students are back to discussing the best way to kill a snake. Elliott is looking out over the prairie. Red Creek's trailers are barely visible. The creek itself looks like a red wound in the earth.

As she stands there, her students jabbering around her, she asks the class a question. She's thrown questions at them throughout the day, as they've walked past scat and sagebrush and cows. But this one is different. She isn't prodding the students to make observations. She's making one of her own.

"Aren't we lucky to live in Wyoming?"

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