Photos by Shannon Broderick/Laramie Boomerang via AP
Story by Daniel Bendtsen/Laramie Boomerang via AP
Thoman Ranch Elementary in Sweetwater County has two students. There are a few other public schools in Wyoming with three students.
Notch Peak Elementary in Albany County, however, stands alone.
Ten-year-old Corinne Gaby is its only student and Ms. Lisa Geary the only teacher.
It begins with a simple idea: Every child in the U.S. has the right to a public education — no matter where that child lives.
Notch Peak Elementary was created for Corinne when she entered kindergarten. It will almost surely dissolve when she leaves sixth grade.
Corinne has no siblings and lives with her parents on a ranch nestled among the granite peaks of the Laramie Range.
Wheatland is the closest town. From Corinne’s house, it’s 27 miles on a dirt road. In good weather, it’s an hour drive. After a good snow, the road’s traversable only after replacing a pick-up’s tires with rubber snow tracks.
The closest school in Albany County is Rock River — about an hour-and-a-half drive on Fetterman Road, which isn’t maintained in the winter.
Getting Corinne to a traditional school simply isn’t feasible.
Corinne’s parents, Jack and Rachel Gaby, moved to Notch Peak Ranch in 2002 after having managed another ranch in western Colorado.
Owned by a Colorado-based real estate developer, Notch Peak is 34,000 acres and lies south of Britania Mountain.
Here, the Gabys, along with two ranch hands, run 600 head of cattle.
When Corinne was born, her parents didn’t know what the possibilities were for schooling.
“It was the main reason I was hesitant about having kids,” Rachel said. “Because I’ve always been in these backcountry places. . I couldn’t teach. I don’t have the patience.”
When Corinne was nearing kindergarten, Rachel and Jack met with Albany County School District No. 1 administrators.
They were surprised by how willing the district was to establish a school on the ranch.
“It was a really smooth process,” Rachel said. “They were so helpful. It’s just been awesome. I can’t tell them how thankful we are.”
“We are so blessed for this opportunity for Corinne,” Jack said. “I don’t know another kid who gets to ride their horse to school and bring their dog to school. It’s such a brag on this great state that they want to keep these rural schools.”
The second floor of a horse barn was converted into a classroom. Large windows keep the cozy room well lit. There’s couches, a wood stove and a smartboard.
With each new teacher, the district has invited the Gabys to be part of the hiring process.
“It’s not for the faint of heart for a teacher to be out here,” Lisa said. “It gets pretty quiet in the winter.”
“Ooooh yeah,” Corinne echoed.
Corinne’s first teacher lasted one year. A second teacher was hired when Corinne was entering first grade. She left after two years. Both teachers lived in the horse barn. By the time Lisa arrived, the district had bought a trailer for her to live in.
In 2016, Lisa was teaching at an elementary school in Peyton, Colorado, but better wages in Wyoming made her want to cross state lines.
The Oregon native had been teaching in Peyton for four years. The smallest number of students she had in a classroom was 16.
Peyton’s principal had been friends with Corinne’s previous teacher. When she left, the principal tipped off Lisa.
Lisa jumped at the opportunity. She’s an avid mountain biker and hiker and knew she’d be well suited for the isolation.
She was the first to apply.
“A lot of people that applied didn’t know the remoteness of the position,” she said.
When she got the job, Lisa was apprehensive.
“It was a lot of life changes for me,” she said. “I was scared.”
That first year on the ranch was hard.
“Harder than I expected,” she said.
The winter took a toll.
With the ranch lying on the north side of mountains, it gets dark unusually early in the winter.
The pipes to Lisa’s trailer froze. At one point, she was snowed in for three weeks.
“I learned to buy a lot of groceries,” Lisa said.
When Lisa interviewed for the job in June 2016, she joined two applicants at the ranch.
After talking with Jack and Rachel, she met Corinne for a one-on-one session.
The precocious 7-year-old sat on a chair, crossed her legs and put her hands on her knees.
“So — how long have you been teaching?” Corinne asked.
Not an ounce of shyness. The Gabys were lucky with Corinne.
“She’s very outgoing,” Rachel said.
When Corinne was starting school, her social life was Rachel’s main concern.
While Corinne doesn’t spend most of her days with other kids, when she does, she blends right in.
Corinne has two close friends in Wheatland. Each Wednesday, she also attends church school and takes violin lessons in town.
Lisa said Corinne “does great in any social situation.”
“She feels like she’s part of the team,” she said.
For her, the isolation isn’t a hindrance on having friends.
“In some situations, with some kids, it would be,” Rachel said.
Each morning, Corinne’s usually driven by her mom the 2 miles to the horse barn.
When it’s too snowy in the winter, she’ll arrive on horseback. Now that Corinne’s older, she’ll sometimes ride alone on her horse, Little Red, with her dog Pancho running by her side.
Class starts at 8 a.m.
They do reading lessons until 10 a.m. Lisa tries to get math done by noon before Corinne’s attention wanes.
After lunch, they move onto English, science and social studies.
The one-on-one situation also allows them to incorporate other skills like sewing, knitting and cooking.
Finally it’s time for P.E. Their options are much wider than at a typical grade school.
When it’s warm, Lisa and Corinne bike or run outside.
There’s also a treadmill on the first floor of the horse barn, and both are now training for a 5k they plan to run in December. When they can’t get outside, yoga’s also an option.
A one-student classroom has obvious advantages to learning.
“The coolest part about this is we can dig deep into so many things,” Lisa said. “If something sparks an interest in her, we can go deeper. There’s no time constraints.”
But in some ways, Lisa said she has to work harder. Corinne doesn’t benefit from the same type of competitive learning environment other students have.
“I have to be more animated,” Lisa said. “If I get up and teach on a normal level, she gets bored.”
She also can’t expect to stick to a certain lesson plan.
“If she gets a concept super quick, I have to be ready to move to the next thing,” she said.
Sometimes, Corinne doesn’t understand a concept in the way Lisa’s accustomed to teaching it.
Lisa will try out other ways of teaching. She expands her skill-set. If Lisa eventually ends up back in a conventional classroom setting, she expects her experience with Corinne will help her cater to the diversity of learning styles children have.
“It’s helped me be a stronger educator because I learn all those different perspectives,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Lisa tried to challenge Corinne as they were working through long division. Lisa added more digits to the problems. She tried giving tips to Corinne, who would cut her off.
“Remember, you need to_”
“I know, Ms. Geary.”
“How am I supposed to show off my teaching skills if you know everything?”
“Ms. Geary, I like it the hard way.”
This is not the same student Lisa started with in 2016.
Lisa thought having just one student would be easy.
But Corinne, then a third-grader, wasn’t an easy student.
“She was happy as a lark when we got outside,” Lisa said.
But in the classroom, Corinne was hard-headed. Sometimes mopey.
“I was a little head-strong from my last teacher, but she straightened me out,” Corinne said.
When Lisa started with Corinne, she set high expectations.
“If you set the bar very high, she’ll reach it,” Lisa said. “It took her a while to understand that. We struggled a little bit with respect.”
“It’s very hard reteaching me,” Corinne said.
Fourth grade was a little easier, but still, there were challenges.
“It could be she didn’t understand the value of education,” Lisa said.
During the past two years, both Lisa and Rachel have pushed Corinne to appreciate the uniqueness of her situation.
As she gets older, she’s understanding that more.
At the start of fifth grade, Lisa said it was “like a switch flipped.”
Corinne became earnest.
“I keep telling myself to be thankful that I can have this and that she cares a lot,” Corinne said.
On her first WY-TOPP test, Corinne scored “advanced” in all three subjects.
Lisa said Corinne’s become “just an unbelievable little reader.”
The Gabys have had chickens for two years. Four chicks were born Aug. 1.
Lisa got used to waking up to the sound of a rooster every morning.
Then on one morning after Labor Day, there was no crow.
Corinne later came running inside, screaming through tears, with one baby chick in her hands.
A raccoon had broken in and eaten the entire family.
The only living chick was given a name: Survivor.
“He’s the sweetest little rooster,” Corinne said.
“We’ve experienced loss, and Corinne needs to learn loss in life too,” Lisa said. “The chickens seem to be what everybody wants to snack on.”
Notch Peak is rife with wildlife. The Gabys’ animals, and those that roam the mountains, greatly shape the world Corinne lives with.
Rattlesnakes are a constant worry in the summer, and Corinne doesn’t do as much hiking then.
Black bears and mountain lions make an occasional appearance on the property.
Bighorn sheep are often seen and there’s a herd of 50-100 elk that roams the ranch.
Corinne’s dog, Pancho, is her faithful co-explorer of the ranch.
The ranch also has cats, burros, mules, four bottle-fed calves and Corinne’s bearded dragon named Puff.
Lisa’s dog, Soleil, comes to class every day.
“He’s a big part of our world,” Lisa said.
Animals play a big part of Corinne’s education.
When the ranch got a family of peacocks in August, it became an opportunity for both Lisa and Corinne to learn about the life cycle of a new species. They did some research to determine whether the peacocks are male or female.
They think all are female, but they won’t be certain until the birds reach 10 months old.
The animals are also an opportunity for Corinne to become the teacher.
During breaks, she might quiz Lisa on the names of the horses or the breeds of chickens on the ranch.
Their mutual fondness of animals and their environment shapes their studies.
So, of course, when they’re talking about Lewis and Clark, Corinne remembers that Meriwether Lewis’s dog was a Newfoundland named Seaman.
On an October morning, Corinne and Lisa are reviewing American history.
They’re talking about the end of the Nez Perce War, and disagreements Chief Joseph had with his daughter about ending the fighting.
“Have you ever argued before?” she asks.
“With Ashley?” Lisa clarifies. That’s her daughter.
“Probably — like about tattoos,” Lisa said. “Just like with Chief Joseph, there’s always generational differences where parents and their children don’t agree.”
The relationship between Lisa and Corinne goes beyond teacher and student. Their personal life is bound to bleed into the classroom.
This bond is also a friendship. It’s mother-and-daughter.
Corinne accidentally calls Lisa “mom.”
Lisa accidentally calls her “Ashley.”
The bond is also sisterly.
They’re each other’s confidantes and they tease each other constantly. They debate who’s the bigger “wuss” when it comes to snakes.
Corinne teases Lisa for her inexperience with guns and her gravitation toward name-brand clothing.
“I don’t know how Ms. Geary doesn’t like country music, but she doesn’t,” Corinne jokes.
“She doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to be hard on me, so when she does, she’s so good at it,” Lisa said.
It helps that Lisa and the Gabys have such a strong relationship. Jack and Rachel trust her.
“I’m part of the family now,” Lisa said. “I’ve caught myself disciplining her when (Jack and Rachel) are around, and that’s OK.”
“That’s where the trust comes in,” Rachel said.” It takes a village.”
As Lisa and Corinne are reviewing the Trial of Tears one day, Corinne mentions an American Indian worldview.
“If you take care of the land, it takes care of you,” she said.
She can relate to that idea.
By Labor Day, the Britania Fire had come within two miles of the horse barn, reaching the edge of the Notch Peak.
The Gabys lost a few cows but went almost entirely unscathed.
“We’re lucky that it didn’t jump over,” Rachel said.
They were never mandatorily evacuated. Jack and Rachel stayed the entire time.
Lisa and Corinne both left over the Labor Day weekend after the power was shut off.
Now, when Corinne hikes to some of the tallest peaks at on the ranch and looks north, she can see the devastation that nearly threatened her home.
That experience has helped inspire her to want to eventually be a firefighter (she’s still also considering horse wrangling).
Corinne’s aspirations are greatly shaped by the world she occupies.
As Corinne’s getting older, both Rachel and Lisa are both focused on getting more experiences off the ranch for the 10-year-old.
They take a lot of field trips, often to Denver, where Lisa’s daughter lives.
They’ve gone rock-climbing, visited the Denver courthouse, the Butterfly Pavilion, the zoo and the aquarium.
“It’s important for her to see the world,” Lisa said.
In 2020, Corinne will finish sixth grade. At that point, Notch Peak Elementary is likely to cease.
The Gabys don’t know what will happen at that point. They don’t want Lisa to leave.
“We don’t even want to talk about,” Jack said. “But we’re not moving to town.”
Despite having a master’s degree, Lisa would need to get four more teaching certificates to be qualified to teach Corinne after 6th grade. Having Corinne take classes online is more likely.
Having the same teacher for multiple grades has shown significant benefits, but Lisa also thinks it might be a good thing she won’t be able to teach Corinne into high school.
“She needs a new perspective,” she said.
These four years Corinne and Lisa have together might have be very different if they hadn’t bonded as they have.
“We’re lucky that we love each other,” Lisa said. “Our relationship is huge. We could have not connected. She had to really like me.”
Lisa has become Corinne’s favorite part of school.
“She’s my everything teacher,” Corinne said.
When Lisa finally does leave Notch Peak, no one expects a permanent goodbye.
“I will always be connected to Corinne,” Lisa said. “Even after I leave after 6th grade, she will always be a part of my life.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.