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December 17, 2014

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Communal experience

Goodsprings

When elementary school students here gather outside for the morning flag salute, Megan Rhoades represents the third grade.

In fact, she is the third grade.

Joining her on the blacktop are nine other children, ranging in age from 5 to 11.

And there you have the entire Goodsprings Elementary School student body: two kindergartners, four second graders, one third grader and three fifth graders.

Welcome to teacher Avis Johnson's world.

The bad news: She has to prepare four different lesson plans daily.

The good news: everything else.

In the rest of the sprawling Clark County School District - the nation's fifth largest and fastest growing - teachers wrestle with student turnover, disinterested parents, neighborhood gangs and workplace politics.

Out here, in a dusty mining community 40 miles from Las Vegas - which they call "town" - Johnson has to make sure there's enough propane in the tank and that the water in the well is testing OK.

To say she gets to know her students is an understatement. She's been teaching fifth graders Alysha Barger, Cory Rhoades and Stevie Morgan since they were in kindergarten.

She has taught them how to read, to multiply, to understand the moon's gravitational pull. She knows what assignments they enjoy (music), and the ones they dread (fractions).

"I'll never be tired of her," Alysha, 10, says. "I want her to be my teacher always."

It's 7:30 a.m. and Johnson is at her scarred wooden desk. Between spoonfuls of Special K, she reviews her notes on tides and bays, looks over homework assignments and lays out the day's plans for her instructional aide, Marie Moore.

Students are making their way down the hill, passing a small cluster of modest wood-frame houses. The comforting aroma of a wood fire wafts through the morning air. A jackrabbit bounds for the desert.

A quick glance around the room suffices for roll call.

The students hang up their jackets and backpacks, and some head to the kitchen for cereal or yogurt, provided by the district. One of the bigger boys tugs at a rope cord dangling in the library, an alcove off the main classroom, and the school bell clangs in the cupola .

"Sometimes they get the bell going and don't want to stop," Johnson says. "When they're real little they can hardly make it go. It's a rite of passage for them."

The school has been renovated over the years, but there's no mistaking the original, 1913 wood frame of the district's oldest and smallest school.

In some ways, Goodsprings is more house than school. There's a large main classroom, big enough to accommodate 10 desks and a work table, with an elevated stage at the far end. A hallway leads to a second smaller classroom, which doubles as storage space. The tiny kitchen has an oven just big enough to reheat the prepared meals delivered by the district's food services department. The "nurse's office" is a blue cot that shares an annex with a photocopier.

Otherwise, Goodsprings Elementary has the trappings of a regular school: a bank of computers, with student art work and motivational posters decorating the walls.

But unlike schools in the city, there's no maintenance crew nearby. When the propane tank ran dry, the students shifted to the warmth of the nearby community center until a refill could be delivered.

Marilyn Miks, who is principal of the Sandy Valley, Indian Springs and Goodsprings campuses, said the children at the rural schools benefit from having the same teacher for successive grades.

"She knows what they covered last year, and what they're going to need to know next year," Miks says, noting Goodsprings has scored well on standardized tests. "It takes a special kind of teacher to be able to do that."

Johnson prefers the rural school setting, reflecting her upbringing in Wisconsin. She taught five years at Sandy Valley Middle School before moving eight miles down the road to Goodsprings in 1999.

It's worth the 90-minute round-trip commute from her Henderson home. "I'm out here," she says, "because I don't want to be anywhere else."

Johnson has help in the classroom.

There are daily visits from district specialists, filling in for the librarian, special education, music and gym teachers other schools have on staff.

There's Moore, the instructional aide who is two semesters short at UNLV of becoming a teacher. But she'll be going on maternity leave in the spring, and the district doesn't provide substitutes for instructional aides.

And there's Shirley Wilson. She's part custodian and keeper of the well-water data, part aide for the two kindergartners and the cook. Today she's offering macaroni and beef, burritos and chicken patties.

Wilson says she worked "in town" for a while - at Roy Martin Middle School.

But oh, there were so many children!

The fifth graders are working on their own, illustrating their essays about Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Peace Prize. Special education teacher Richard Dozar has arrived to work individually with other students, and Johnson gathers her four second graders for math.

They settle in small blue plastic chairs surrounding the work table. Johnson hands out squares of colored paper, and they carefully fold and cut each piece, assembling the snippets into triangles, squares and rectangles.

Johnson's extra set of eyes are keeping close watch on the rest of the room.

"Why are you wandering?" she asks one of her older students, who is drifting between the rows of desks. She tells another to throw away a paper towel and put down the stapler.

And the low hum of classroom activity is restored.

Cory Rhoades was out much of the prior week with the flu, as was his younger sister Megan.

At her desk, Johnson goes over a list of makeup work and asks Cory what he plans to get done that evening at home.

"Everything," he announces.

Johnson shakes her head.

"Not everything - pick one thing that's important," she suggests.

He decides he'll tackle a story the rest of his classmates have already finished.

"Good idea," Johnson tells him, and suggests he read the story with his sister.

Outside the school, construction worker Jared Reese picks up his daughter, second grader Tristin. This is her first year at Goodsprings, after attending Fay Galloway Elementary School in Henderson.

"She's doing a lot better here," Reese says. "There's more one-on-one attention."

Johnson stands on the schoolhouse's front steps as her students button up their jackets, collect their books and race out toward the narrow asphalt road. Then they stop, and turn to wave to Johnson.

" 'Bye guys," she calls out. "See you tomorrow."

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