A roller coaster dirt road leads to this rural school 26 miles south of Colorado Springs. Hawks fly overhead. Occasionally students ride to school on horseback, and an inquisitive goat tries to get in the building.
Parents and teachers like the small classes. Some have fewer than 15 students. What they wish they had more of, they say, is technology. It's hard to come by on a small budget. And it's a big worry because state assessment tests soon will be conducted online.
"We have been upgrading our labs, and are saving pennies and nickles. We will need a lot of computers," says Superintendent Paul McCarty. "We could bring a lot more 21st-century excitement if we had more technology."
Fifth-grade teacher Dale Carpenter wishes he had a whiteboard. He uses a feather quill with red ink to correct papers - not as a statement about the lack of technology, but as something fun for the kids - they're fascinated by this relic.
The students grade each other's papers, and the class is small enough that he can look at the papers and explain mistakes as students line up at his desk. The technique helps his learn what he needs to teach the next day. When a paper is exemplary, he reaches into a bag and gives the student a penny for the classroom Hot Tamales machine.
The classroom doesn't have all the bells and whistles, "but the kids will know their decimals.," he says. "It all comes down to what they learn, not how."
Two boys are sitting on a couch, an honor bestowed on those who did well on a lesson. They are writing in cursive, which not many schools teach anymore. They read each other's work. Carpenter is big on peer revision, because it helps reader and writer.
Mobility is a challenge at Prairie Heights Elementary. Teachers leave for better-paying jobs, and every year there is a 30 percent change in the student body. Continuity of instruction can be difficult.
The district received federal money for a librarian/ media specialist. There is also a new interventionist and music teacher for the district. It's added two days a month for teacher professional development.
Principal Grant Schmidt, in his second year, instituted a new math program, created a science lab and social studies class to better address the state's new Common Core standards. He started a lunch bunch and regularly meets with small groups of students to hear what's on their minds. He installed a climbing wall to help promote students' physical fitness and to give them a place to relieve their stresses. The school started a parent group last year to increase involvement in student education.
Student Council president Isaiah Day, 10, says that he and other delegates were able to get a movie night at the school. New desks to replace the ancient ones is another request. But most important is having nice teachers, he says.
"They tell you what you need to know and make sure you know it."
Prairie Heights Elementary
Hanover School District 28
Enrollment: 128 (District, 249)
Free/reduced-price lunch: 83 percent
Minorities: 47 percent, (District 41 percent)
Test scores moving up