A rafter of turkeys often greets Abby Roehm when she arrives at Gateway School, 10 to 20 birds foraging for dried berries and other treats among the trees.

In seven years working at the school she's called a shelter-in-place only once, when there was a mountain lion roaming the campus.

Teachers check for bears before they let students on the playground during recess and bring air horns outside to deter wandering wildlife.

Gateway is the most remote school in District 51, located halfway between Grand Junction and Naturita along Colorado Highway 141 in Unaweep Canyon. Nestled between West Creek and the soaring red rock Palisade butte, it's 50 miles and an hour's drive to the nearest town.

It's also the smallest K-12 school in Colorado, with the school's official 2018-2019 enrollment at 36 students. That number dropped to 29 by the end of the school year.

But even with the school's idyllic location and ideal student-to-teacher ratio, Gateway has had to adapt to survive.

After the mines closed and enrollment dipped below 20 students in 2016, district leaders looked at closing the school and busing students to Grand Junction every day.

That idea wasn't well- received by locals, who saw the school as a vital part of their community, said former District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz.

The Board of Education opted to wait to see if the school could grow enough to sustain itself, and Principal Mark Allen was hired with "all sorts of enthusiasm and great ideas about how to capitalize on what they had," Schultz said.

After he was hired, Allen worked with teachers to solidify the school's individual approach to education and emphasize opportunities for students.

Want to do your classwork down by the burbling creek? Take electives like building stained glass windows and travel as a class to the Four Corners? Leave school on Fridays for independent study or work? All of that is possible at Gateway.

Gateway is not for everyone, Allen said. There are no sports teams, no band or orchestra, no clubs.

But there are a culture and a learning model that much larger schools across School District 51 have been working to implement since 2015.

Teachers working one-on-one with students every day, students keeping track of their own learning and minimal behavior problems because everyone knows each other so well.

"It's a truly amazing place to come to work every day," Roehm said.

Madonna Dormaier's classroom is quiet on a Tuesday afternoon during the last week of school, her eight students focused on worksheets, textbooks or laptops. The calmness permeating Dormaier's classroom isn't a result of strictly enforced rules, but the natural tranquility found in places that don't have traffic lights, much less traffic jams.

One boy becomes distracted, talking loudly enough to pull the attention of his classmates, and Dormaier squats next to where he's sitting at a big, round table. She suggests he work while holding a pillow in his lap, and the boy agrees, refocusing on his work.

With so few students, this kind of personal attention is easier to give.

Dormaier teaches third, fourth and fifth grade, gifted and talented, special education and music. Five of the 29 students at Gateway are her children. She lives in Gateway, and not up the canyon, because her husband is the pastor at the Wayside Chapel.

Dormaier and her husband used to be missionaries and she homeschooled her children before they moved here. Now, she likes participating in the kind of education that's possible with such small class sizes.

"I can implement things with smaller class sizes, like cooking, that I couldn't do with many little hands," she said.

Fifth-grader Cora Moores is working on fractions, the last section in her math workbook. She moves between her desk and Dormaier's, asking questions occasionally.

Cora attended a much larger school before she moved to Unaweep Canyon with her family three years ago.

"It's a lot better and it's easier to make friends because you have to make friends with everybody," she said.

The school's size and remote location are two of the biggest factors in nearly nonexistent behavior issues, according to Allen.

"The kids know each other from growing up in the canyon, and they have a great propensity for understanding where the other is coming from," he said. "They have to depend on each other, and they learn to adjust and learn to be flexible in their mindset. If you throw an outsider into this, you're going to have a temporary upheaval, but it usually works to the advantage of the incoming because of the stability of our kids."

Small class sizes also allow teachers to tailor lessons to individual students. That was sometimes a struggle for Dormaier with Cora, but only because Cora reads so much that she was usually done with a book by the time Dormaier was ready to start the lesson.

"I finally told her, we should just start having book talks after you're done," she said, laughing.

Dormaier's lessons with Cora are similar to the small group or one-on-one approach schools across District 51 are working to implement. Individualized education ties directly into the school district's learning model, which centers on performance-based or competency-based learning.

Those buzzy education words translate to students moving through school at their own pace and not moving on from a lesson until they've shown they understand the concept, rather than moving on because it's time to do so. The goal, according to district leaders, is to move away from the production line feel of industrial education. Rather than learning fractions on a factory line, students are invested in what they're learning, not regurgitating memorized information.

Allen said Gateway's education model is individualized "to a point" — students who aren't keeping up with their studies are held accountable.

"At a certain point, time becomes a part of the society we live in," Allen said. "You can't not finish a class and just pick it up next fall — or if you do, you might have to sacrifice another class."

Students all have planners broken down by subjects and set daily goals for their learning — an effort to keep on top of the pace and stay on track.

Students who don't use their planners are usually the ones who struggle, Allen said. A few students are about half a year behind in one class because they didn't stay on track.

For all the benefits of a tightly woven community and small class sizes, there are also challenges that come with running a tiny rural school.

It's hard for Allen to find qualified teachers for Gateway because of the school's unique setup and remote location. Teaching multiple grade levels at once can be overwhelming for new teachers, so Allen tries to find more experienced teachers to work at the school.

Then there's the hour-plus commute every day, because living in Unaweep Canyon is essentially limited to massive ranches owned by long-standing families, employee housing at the Gateway Canyons Resort or the school's staff housing.

There's also a seasonal fluctuation of students because of the nearby resort, which closes for three months every year. Some students who start the year at the school move to Grand Junction or other towns or even out of state as their parents look for work.

Gateway also costs far more money per student to run compared to other District 51 schools. While the district receives extra state funding for Gateway because it's small and rural, the school's per-student cost is double that of a small, local elementary school like Shelledy in Grand Junction.

But Allen said he hasn't heard any more talk of closing the school, and he's constantly looking for ways to make it a better financial investment.

A new middle school learning camp could help offset the cost of the remote, rural school. The Outdoor Wilderness Lab serves 150 sixth-graders at Bookcliff and Redlands middle schools, and organizers want to relocate O.W.L. from Camp Cedaredge in Delta County to Gateway so that every sixth-grader can participate in the five-day wilderness excursion.

Schultz said he remembers conversations about creating an outdoor science education program at Gateway as far back as the 1980s.

"For years schools have fundraised money to take kids to Camp Redcloud all the way down in Lake City," Schultz said. "To create something similar at the Gateway School would have some big benefits."

Allen said he's proud of what he and his teachers have created at Gateway — a school where everybody knows everybody's name, where Christmas pageants and graduations draw the entire community together. Even more than that, it's a place where students and teachers want to be.

"To go to a school and find people who like to be where they are, that says a lot," Allen said. "Even with the commute, teachers here really consider it a privilege to be able to serve the community."

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