One-Track Minds

By Wesley F. Sander — August 12, 2005 10 min read
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It’s a bright spring day at tiny Rail Road Flat Elementary School, but teacher Randall Youngblood’s mood hasn’t yet lightened. The trouble had flared up the previous week when he’d left his class of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in the hands of a substitute. Or, to hear him tell it, the other way around.

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“They savaged him,” the teacher sighs, leaning on his desk at the back of his small portable classroom. “It was brutal.” From accounts he’s been able to piece together, half the class started the day being generally nasty to one another, and tensions built steadily from there, culminating in a fistfight between two 5th graders and a loud curse that got a student sent home for the day. “This is a very dysfunctional group when they get any leeway whatsoever,” he says.

It doesn’t sound like the same group of kids who have helped make the 100-student public school, tucked into an almost invisibly small town in northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, one of the highest-achieving schools in the state.

“Mr. Youngblood?” Sierra Crum, a blond 5th grade girl, springs up to his desk, apparently with a question about the current class assignment to list similes for several words on the board.

Teacher Randall Youngblood.


“Can I use your name for ‘irritated’ ?”

Youngblood makes a little snort of amusement and assent, chuckling and shaking his head to himself as the girl spins back to her desk, a mischievous grin playing on her lips. This is what he loves about his students—their energy and spirit. It’s what has helped make Rail Road Flat Elementary, despite its size, poverty, and social isolation, a state nominee last year for “national model of excellence” status, based on the school’s recent history of high standardized test scores.

But as becomes apparent in a lapse like the previous week’s, it’s only strong discipline that keeps that energy channeled. Discipline and the kind of teach-to-the-test learning that’s become endemic in the era of No Child Left Behind. Such rote learning often gets frowned upon in the schools of better-educated, more affluent communities. Here, though, in a 549-person town named for a type of mule-drawn rail-and-mining-cart arrangement that’s been obsolete for a hundred years, “whatever works” is clearly working.

Hunched over her desk in Youngblood’s half of a portable trailer, a girl is steadily filling a page with penciled printing. Letter after letter, line after line, she writes the same sentence over and over again: “I will keep my hands to myself.”

Nearby, a boy is doing the same thing, though with wobblier handwriting: “It is in my best interest to obey school rules.”

Making sure they do, their teacher is forever on the move, prodding here, scolding there. Patrolling the room while explaining assignments to his 6th graders, he shoots a preemptive look at the 5th graders in the opposite corner who look like they might be getting ready to misbehave. After 21 years here, he knows how to keep his kids continuously on task.

“Brad, you do not need to verbalize every thought!” Youngblood reprimands a student.

“No,” he says flatly to another child’s request that the in-class assignment be modified.

“Samantha, save it!” he barks to a little girl.

“I think a lot of these kids are coming in without the discipline that kids with stable, two-parent households have,” he says by way of explaining his firm hand in the classroom. Not that he’s unsympathetic. The 47-year-old teacher has known nearly all the kids since they were in kindergarten—including what kind of challenges they face at home—but he’s found that coddling isn’t an option. “There is a need for structure,” Youngblood explains. “If I was teaching in another socioeconomic group, it might be different.”

Rail Road Flat was a thriving town a century and a half ago, but when gold stopped coming out of the ground in bulk, most moved on. Its current residents live among idyllic surroundings—secluded hillsides splotched with open meadows and forests of evergreen and broad-leaf—but life is still hard here. The unemployment level is above 40 percent, and what work there is, mostly retail and service- sector jobs, tends to be nearly an hour’s drive from town. About 19 percent of the town’s residents live below the poverty line. Only 6 percent hold post-secondary degrees, making economic mobility difficult.

Against such a backdrop, the children’s standout academic performance is that much harder to figure. Kimberly Edwards, a consultant and NCLB liaison at the California Department of Education, couldn’t quite believe the standardized-test numbers the school was racking up.

“What impresses me is the fact that ... 60 percent [of students qualify for] free and reduced-price lunches,” she says. David Day, also a CDE consultant, agrees. “They’re very good,” he notes. “[But] I’m not sure that what you can learn from this school, you can learn from the numbers.”

The secret, if there is one, is only to be found at the school itself.

MapQuest has never heard of Rail Road Flat, so it pays to ask for directions. To reach the little village, it takes an hour of uphill driving from the vast Central Valley, starting on the state highways but quickly shunting off onto a succession of progressively thinner secondary roads until you find yourself on a shaded, winding country route. The center of town springs into view over a small rise as the road slows, then threads a tight cluster of demure buildings: first the now-defunct Eureka School (established 1896) and Rail Road Flat Community Hall, two drab wooden buildings together on the right. On the left is the Rail Road Flat Café, the Rail Road Flat General Store (established 1920), and the post office. Behind these, a modest herd of buffalo roams among the trees, sometimes venturing down near the road. The biggest structure in sight is Rail Road Flat Elementary’s gym; that building, a small office, and three temporary trailers constitute the school.

By the time the 8 a.m. bell rings, all of Youngblood’s students have filed into his middle-trailer classroom—the one with a homemade plastic label on the door admonishing THINK THINK THINK. Inside, they’re already hard at work checking their algebra homework answers. Then it’s on to in-class problems, which Youngblood runs through with the drive of a drill instructor, and tonight’s homework: percentages, rates of speed, calculating the surface area of a cube, and the algebraic order of operations. After that, it’s language hour, with assignments in spelling and vocabulary. Next come exercises on compound sentences and similes, followed hard by a spelling test.

Even at recess, students can occasionally be seen sitting cross-legged by themselves, hitting the books in a quiet corner of the blacktop. From the beginning of the school year until the end, it’s a relentless, hard-hitting rhythm that doesn’t perceptibly slacken, even after the California Standards Tests are over. Don’t look here, in other words, for strategies to engage students—the students had better be engaged, or there are consequences ready and waiting. “There’s nothing entertaining about it,” Youngblood says. “It’s a grind, really. We come in, and we work all day.” His modus operandi and his theory of teaching are identical: “Just plow ahead.”

‘A grind” is what one expects the students will think of such an unvarying routine of work, but the social isolation of this townlet doesn’t allow for much comparison of who’s got more homework. Every kid here and every kid they know goes through the same drill, and for most of them, this is the way it’s always been: Steady funding declines and heavy testing are just the natural state of things.

That’s not to say they never get in trouble, even when there’s no substitute to take advantage of. On any given day in Youngblood’s class, there’s a healthy chance that 5th grader Brad Carlson will have his name on the board for misbehaving. He often becomes moody and sullen in class and is prone to outbursts—it was Brad who hurled a swear word while fighting in class last week.

But the 11-year-old is also known for topping his classmates’ math scores—something Youngblood likes to remind him of, calling him “our biggest hope” only half-jokingly. Claiming to relish homework problems, Brad says he wants to be a math teacher, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem to mind the class’s heavy emphasis on drill-and-kill learning. In his mind, school and standardized testing are inseparable.

“I enjoy it,” he says.

So does fellow 5th grader Zach Glorioso. He sees the potential applicability of the algebraic formulas and scientific concepts Youngblood teaches to the adventure-quest video game he’s designing, which features Mooch, a half-man, half-monkey superhero of Zach’s own creation. But he wishes there were a little more flexibility in class for such creative projects.

His eyes drop and his tone softens as he talks about his work in progress. “I’m getting this all down now, on the computer, because I know that when I get older, I won’t think the same,” he says, chipping away at some unfinished homework during recess. As it is, he often spends more time at home with video games than schoolwork and sometimes shows up without it. As punishment, he has to trudge next door to teacher Kathy Risso’s 1st and 2nd grade room, where he sets to work in the corner, scowling at himself all the while.

There also have been more-tangible sacrifices for the students. As greater and greater academic expectations have been heaped upon this tiny school, it has had to meet those standards with declining resources. Ironically, says principal Ed Collett, Rail Road Flat Elementary’s success over the past four years has actually shrunk the amount of state discretionary money it gets—from $98,000 in 2000-01 to $47,000 last year—since the funds are earmarked for school improvement. And with per-capita income averaging $18,454, the community isn’t exactly flush enough to funnel extra local tax money into the schools or to set up a foundation to offset state aid reduction.

Though most of Youngblood’s students are too young to remember better times, a brief rundown of all that’s been lost in the past few years makes it clear those figures aren’t just numbers on paper. Among other things, Collett says, in 2001 the school held as many as 15 student assemblies a year. They were valuable opportunities to present student awards and stoke school pride, but now the school can afford to convene only four. Field trips, too, have taken a hit. Five years ago, there were several annually. Now, Collett notes, kids are lucky to get three, and each of these is funded entirely by the teachers, aides, and students.

Youngblood particularly mourns the passing of the faculty-run campus basketball league. Every student played, and, the way Youngblood sees it, the games taught discipline and invaluable life lessons, including this one: When the referee makes a call, you keep playing, even if you don’t agree with it.

But as state funding lagged behind the costs of running practices and games, maintaining equipment, and coordinating a schedule, the expense became harder to justify. For a while, teachers and parents found ways of pulling through, Youngblood recalls. But the steady financial drain called a halt to basketball about seven years ago, and while the hope of revival lingered for a time, it died out shortly after the coming of NCLB. “With all the standards we’re required to cover, it was hard to rationalize finding time for that,” Youngblood laments. “We’re not going back.”

Accepting setbacks and persevering despite them is a useful object lesson, but he knows that discipline and hard work will get anyone only so far. On some afternoons, he sees teenagers lingering across the street at the general store, and he’s aware of the local drug problem, which spreads up from the Central Valley, a regional hotbed of methamphetamine production. He sees the patterns repeat themselves—former students faltering, dropping out, getting into trouble. Once his 6th graders leave his classroom of order and learning, bound for adolescence in the shadow of poverty and few appealing job prospects, he knows there’s nothing he can do to keep their worlds from crumbling around them. And there’s no referee he can appeal to even if he disagrees with the way the game is going. He just keeps playing, working his team, and hoping they’ll keep on improving.

“There’s just that whole emotional thing that you can’t really touch,” he says. “I just have to assure them as best I can—convince them that they’ll succeed.”


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