Wyo. School District Raises Facililities, Test Scores Thanks to swollen state coffers, Wyoming is now spending more on its schools than most other states. One rural district, Pinedale, is especially benefiting. That district is in a building frenzy. And it has some of the highest scores on the state's assessment test.
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Wyo. School District Raises Facililities, Test Scores

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Wyo. School District Raises Facililities, Test Scores

Wyo. School District Raises Facililities, Test Scores

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MIKE PESCA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

You can't say this about a lot of public schools. The schools in Pinedale, Wyoming have plenty of cash. It's from tax revenues from the area's natural gas wells. So the district of just 840 students has tested a hypothesis. Do unlimited resources really create a superior education?

Wyoming Public Radio's Renny MacKay reports.

RENNY MACKAY: Pinedale, Wyoming sits at the foot of a stunning mountain range. Yellowstone National Park and the legendary Teton Mountains are just a short drive away. The local superintendent of schools, Doris Woodbury, says the landscape has long made it a desirable place to live.

Ms. DORIS WOODBURY (School Superintendent, Pinedale, Wyoming): We have a lot of wilderness areas - you know, hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, you name it.

MacKAY: There's also an abundance of natural gas wells in the region whose owners must pay taxes, a percentage of which end up in the local school district's coffers. For Pinedale families, that's the icing on the proverbial cake. For instance, last year the district spent about four times the national average per student.

(Soundbite of construction workers)

MacKAY: Evidence of this is everywhere. Construction workers are pounding away on a new school pool, complete with water slide. They're replacing roofs and adding on to the middle school.

(Soundbite of school)

MacKAY: Inside the school, it's almost dizzying - computers, gorgeous gymnasiums, and a renovated art room.

(Soundbite of lunchroom)

MacKAY: And at lunch, as kids fill trays with pasta and vegetables, they get another bonus. Lunch and breakfast cost all students just 50 cents. Doris Woodbury says they're taking care of kids the way they're supposed to be taken care of.

Ms. DORIS WOODBURY: For us to be able to ensure that every child coming into a classroom has a quality meal under their belt, literally, and then a quality lunch. I believe that that's fundamental to a quality education.

Unidentified Children: One, two, three...

MacKAY: Inside the classrooms, there are signs of the district's riches too. This kindergarten is one of about a dozen equipped with a smart board. That's a giant computer monitor, and more. A blond haired five-year-old is in front of the screen that's taller than him. He's touching and dragging images of apples, and putting them in numerical order.

Ms. ANNE BENNETT(ph) (Kindergarten Teacher): These kids, we offer them so much. We give them so much.

MacKAY: Kindergarten teacher Anne Bennett.

Ms. BENNETT: With the computer labs that our kids have access to that are so updated like - in the high school, almost every year they have a new lab somewhere.

MacKAY: Superintendent Woodbury says she feels a tremendous responsibility because of the opportunity her district's been given.

Ms. WOODBURY: What I have said to the staff is if we can't do what school districts need to do here in Pinedale, nobody can.

MacKAY: For others in the education community, there are just three things to say.

Ms. HELAINE DORAN (Campaign for Fiscal Equity): Jealous, jealous, jealous.

MacKAY: Helaine Doran of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity works in New York State trying to obtain funding for schools there. She sees the Pinedale District as a model for what unlimited educational resources can mean.

Ms. DORAN: Money can be used well. Money can have the effects that we want, which is, you know, bringing all kids to the high levels of achievement that's necessary to go to college and have a good job in, you know, the United States today or in the global economy.

MacKAY: Others are not so sure unlimited resources are the answer to the nation's education ills. James Guthrie is the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy and professor at Vanderbilt University.

Mr. JAMES GUTHRIE (Peabody Center for Education Policy): You and I could travel around the United States and find a thousand other districts that spend half as much and get higher achievement.

MacKAY: In fact, Guthrie goes further, saying the spending in the Pinedale school district is pointless and wasteful.

Mr. GUTHRIE: I just can't imagine that they need it. It's just somehow - they ought to - I don't know, they ought to give to save the great apes in Africa or redirect it to Darfur or something. There's just no justification for that.

MacKAY: Whether or not Guthrie is right, Pinedale's social experiment of sorts is heading for a change. Wyoming voters just approved a constitutional amendment that means the district must share all of its windfall with the rest of the state. Still, Pinedale residents shouldn't feel too disappointed. All of Wyoming is enjoying a natural resource-driven boom, and while Pinedale was ahead of the curve, it's unlikely that sharing its good fortune will make that much difference to its classrooms.

For NPR News, I'm Renny MacKay in Laramie, Wyoming.

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