Students Blossom in the Desert There are just 11 students at California's Death Valley Elementary, one full-time teacher and one teaching aide. The small-school environment helped one pupil overcome speech and language delays, and many of her classmates are working above grade level.

Students Blossom in the Desert

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All this year, MORNING EDITION has been visiting one-room schools across the country, public schools where many grades are taught by a single teacher. We've been to a frigid island off the coast of Maine, to ranch country in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and to a native Hawaiian village in the rain forest of Maui. Today, independent producer Neenah Ellis takes us to a remote part of the west, and we're going to meet a girl who's made remarkable progress in a one-room school.

NEENAH ELLIS reporting:

Head west out of Las Vegas into the desert on a windy two-lane highway where it's way too easy to drive at killer speeds, and in just over two hours you're in Death Valley, California. It's the hottest, lowest, and driest place in America, and yet 500 people live here.

Some are native Shoshone, but most others have come more or less because of a national park. Just after 6:00 AM, one small school bus sets out to pick up 11 kids. Most of their parents work for a company called Xanterra, which runs a resort in the park. At ten 'til 7:00 AM, before it's too hot, they're dropped off at their one-room school, Death Valley Elementary.

(Soundbite of children playing)

ELLIS: The teacher, Leslie Rowan, remembers watching the kids come in last September when classes started.

Ms. LESLIE ROWAN (Teacher, Death Valley Elementary): I remember I had one kindergartner, I had one. She's the one that just caught my eye. She had just this wonderful sparkle and I said I just couldn't wait to teach her.

ELLIS: Her name was Taylor. She seemed happy, Leslie Rowan says, but she didn't speak. She just pointed and grunted.

Ms. ROWAN: She put her foot up on my knee when I was sitting down in a chair. And then I asked her, would you like me to tie your shoe. And she just shook her head up and down like she acknowledged it. And I said, can you say that. And she just - her lips just pursued and she shook her head no.

ELLIS: Taylor hadn't been to pre-school. She couldn't count. She didn't know her ABC's. At home, she was withdrawn, and her mother Rhonda Alford(ph) was worried.

Ms. RHONDA ALFORD (Taylor's mother): She was shy and she wouldn't talk to people at all. She wouldn't even look at them. I mean, she just wasn't - she was just quiet. She was just by herself.

ELLIS: Do you know why she was like that?

Ms. ALFORD: I don't know. I don't know why she was like that.

ELLIS: Taylor had been evaluated by two Special-ed teachers and a speech and Language therapist. In their terms, Taylor had a speech and language delay and an auditory processing problem. She might never talk or read they said. The teacher, Leslie Rowan, had seen the reports.

Ms. ROWAN: When I saw her on that first day and I saw that sparkle in her eye, I said no, no, there's more there with this child than what's on the papers that I read.

ELLIS: Leslie Rowan went to work.

Ms. ROWAN: Where's the cover of this book? Very good. Where's the title?

ELLIS: And now, seven months later, Taylor's doing first grade math and she can read a little bit, too. This week Mrs. Rowan is teaching her the letter O.

Ms. ROWAN: What is that?


Ms. ROWAN: It's an otter. Can you find the capital O's for me? If this is an otter, what do you think this word is?

Ms. T. ALFORD: O. Otter.

Ms. ROWAN: Otter. Very good. Otter, otter.

Ms. T. ALFORD: He likes to be clean.

Ms. ROWAN: He is clean. Why do you think he's clean?

Ms. T. ALFORD: Because he's taking a shower.

ELLIS: Leslie Rowan created a curriculum for Taylor that included working with the other kids and a lot of one-on-one. And when she couldn't get a speech therapist to make the drive to Death Valley, she found a local retired teacher named Olivia Dotson Reynolds to volunteer.

Ms. OLIVIA DOTSON REYNOLDS (Volunteer, Death Valley Elementary): Find your letters and spell your name. What letter is that?


ELLIS: She's not a certified speech therapist, but she's worked with preschoolers for 30 years. She helped Taylor speak in full sentences.

Ms. REYNOLDS: Remember I was telling you about the special thing we're doing.

Ms. T. ALFORD: Yes. (Unintelligible)

Ms. REYNOLDS: Yes. What is this?

Ms. T. ALFORD: A rabbit.

Ms. REYNOLDS: These are?

Ms. T. ALFORD: These are rabbits.

Ms. REYNOLDS: They are stamps.

Ms. T. ALFORD: They are stamps.

ELLIS: Mrs. Reynolds says three things have brought Taylor this far: the one-on-one attention, a loving environment, and the smallness of the school, where the teacher had the time a flexibility to fit Taylor in. but what if Taylor's mom had sent her to a bigger school where more professional services would be available? Leslie Rowan's thought a lot about that.

Ms. ROWAN: She would have speech and language therapy and she would most likely be out of the classroom off and on during the week, and maybe a resource specialist that would come in and do one-on-one activities with her. But I don't know if she would have the compassion towards her that she has received from her classmates. This wonderful little diverse community has helped her grow.

(Soundbite of children playing)

ELLIS: Maybe Taylor could have done just as well in a large school, but studies do show that kids in less affluent communities do better in small schools; that, in fact, small schools can help erase the effects of poverty. All the kids at Death Valley Elementary, not just Taylor, are coping with factors that often hurt student performance.

Four of them speak Spanish at home, five are being raised by single moms. They all qualify for free or reduced lunches, but academically, nine of the eleven are high performers, working above their grade levels in some subjects.

(Soundbite of children in classroom)

ELLIS: In the lunchroom, Mrs. Rowan starts a game on Taylor's behalf, since she's learning the letter O this week.

Ms. ROWAN: Ask Taylor what Shrek is.

Unidentified Child #1: What is Shrek?

Ms. T. ALFORD: Ogre.

Ms. ROWAN: Thank you.

Unidentified Child #1: What does ogre start with?


Unidentified Child #2: Taylor, what does crash start with?


Unidentified Child #3: What does ostrich start with?

Ms. T. ALFORD: I don't know.

Unidentified Child #3: O.

Unidentified Child #2: Taylor, what does otter start with.

Ms. T. ALFORD: It's O.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIS: And then Taylor takes over.

Ms. T. ALFORD: What's H start with?

Unidentified Children: H.

ELLIS: This five-year-old girl, who came to a one-room school in Death Valley unable to speak, has found people with the time and compassion to help her.

Ms. T. ALFORD: What's horse start with?

Unidentified Children: H

ELLIS: Taylor Alford will start first grade in the fall. For NPR News, I'm Neenah Ellis.

Ms. T. ALFORD: Ok, what's Mrs. Rowan start with?

Unidentified Children: R.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can visit Death Valley Elementary, and other one-room schools in our series, at

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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