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Back to school through time

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO- It’s that time of year again – back to school days. It’s often to the relief of parents, and to the chagrin of children, but school attendance is mandatory for certain ages nowadays.
It has not always been so. The annual school census taken by the county superintendent of schools to submit to the state board of education often found hundreds of children of school age who were not enrolled in any school, and may never have been. As late as 1957, for instance, there were 2,682 children between the ages of six and 16, and only 1,522 were enrolled in a school. At the time, Huerfano County had 18 public schools, including Walsenburg and La Veta, employing 94 teachers. The statistics do not include numbers from St. Mary Parochial School, just public schools.
Just five years earlier, in 1952, there were 24 operating school districts in Huerfano County. The following year this dropped to 16 and then to 12 in 1956. Whether a rural school opened for a year depended entirely upon how many children were in the district. The entire district school might include just two families worth of children, and if a family with seven kids moved away, well, there went that school.
The 12 school districts of 1956 had dropped from 55. Rural schools were everywhere in the early days, and they had to be, in those pre-school bus days. There were schools in places where there are no places anymore, from remote canyons in the foothills to the flats in the eastern part of the county. Not all of these districts had operating schools as a result of declining enrollment.
Some of Huerfano’s rural schools were only open in the summer. The school year might be three months, or four, depending on the financial status of the parents in the district. When funds ran out, the school closed. The good thing about short terms was that really good teachers, such as J.B.N. Valdez or Casimiro Cruz, could teach nearly year round by moving from community to community. The bad thing about the arrangement was that some students, those with parents who lived in the city in the winter and on the farm in the summer until harvest, had to go to school nearly year round.
The schools also varied wildly in size. There were many one-room schoolhouses, and the enrollment might be 10 or 70, all in together. And, yes, even with 70 students, one teacher would be in charge. Other rural schools had multiple teachers, in two or three rooms. Some districts had two or three small schools. The poorer districts had no textbooks, and relied on a county-wide lending library.
In 1946 there were 49 districts, 107 teachers and an average daily attendance of 1,810. The census showed the county had 4,273 school age children. The same year the state welfare department made it mandatory for schools to provide students with a hot lunch program. The hot lunches were yet another innovation stemming from the Works Progress Administration of the late ‘30s, along with the penny milk program. Much of the menu for the lunches came from the commodity warehouses that supplied the underprivileged. At that late date, three of the rural schoolhouses still had no electricity or water.
The annual school census in 1949 showed 1,909 boys and 1,807 girls were regularly attending school, of 3,716 of school age. More than 2,000 of these children were in Walsenburg. That fall, 13 of the rural schools decided to bus their students to the city for classes, and closed their rural schools. Thirty rural schools remained open. This was the first year that school consolidation was seriously considered.
In June 1949, a 15-member school reorganization committee was formed to make a plan. Floyd Murr was elected president. The committee suggested three districts – Walsenburg, Gardner, and La Veta.
Since the early 1900s, the only thing consolidated about the schools was the high schools. There were only two, Huerfano County High School in Walsenburg, and Union High School in La Veta. For a few years, branches of HCHS were operated in Gardner and Apache.
Special elections took place in 1951 in the districts to approve consolidation, and in most, the measure passed. Implementing that measure was the hard part. In 1958 the next step was naming the new districts, and they became R-1 and R-2. Gardner had been left out in the cold, having voted against three districts. The R stood for Reorganized.
The reorganization plan went into effect July 1, 1959. However, 12 rural schools remained open under the administration of Re-1. It was not until the mid-1960s when the last of the historic schoolhouses closed its doors forever.

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