Tiny Idaho school is big family

At Idaho's smallest K-12 institution, one-on-one teaching time is not a problem, but dating is.


LEADORE - Leadore is one of two small schools in South Lemhi School District 292, which is home to 78 students.

Ten students will graduate this year. The eighth-grade class is made up of two cousins.

Daily interactions are guided by the familiarity between teachers, students and parents. Many have known each other's families for generations. The dynamic is far different from the professional mentor-to-student or casual peer-to-peer relationships at larger schools.

At Leadore, everyone is on a first-name basis.

"I've been with these (students) for 13 years and they know me and what I can and can't do," senior Trevor Kauer said. "Failing at Leadore isn't an option - we enjoy a personal, one-on-one relationship with each teacher. They know our strengths, weaknesses and interests."

Many teachers, such as Joan Geary-Smith, are generational educators. Some of her first students at Leadore are now the parents of current students.

"It's kind of nice, because … there is a connection … you know where the kid has come from and you know how to relate to them," Geary-Smith said.

The inclusive environment offers many challenges and opportunities for students. Teachers and administrators praise the benefits of an ultra-rural education, but admit to some major sacrifices in choosing to work at a remote facility.

Leadore is closer to Dillon, Mont., (67.5 miles) than it is to Challis (104 miles) or Idaho Falls (116 miles).


The pros are obvious.

Average class size is seven, which means a lot more interaction with teachers.

As a result, Leadore students tend to do well on standardized tests and college entrance exam.

District 292 averaged higher on the SAT than any other school district in eastern Idaho in 2012. All 10 juniors at the school took the test and scored above the state average.

An estimated 90 percent enroll in college within a year of high school graduation, officials said - the state average is 46 percent.

The cons also are obvious.

Try dating when the only other person in your grade is your cousin.

Try fielding a sports team.

"Obviously, if we want to date, we have to check out the family tree first because we are all pretty much related here," 17-year-old Kauer joked. "The dating scene is pretty minimal."

The senior class has six boys and four girls - and one couple. Prom night generally is just a group date.

Kauer was 5 when he attended his first prom with his mom, a teacher.

"We go all out … prom is quite an affair here," Kauer said.

High school sports are challenging because nearly everyone must participate to field a team.

Cousins Brie Beyeler, 13 and AnnaLee Beyeler, 14, are the entire eighth grade.

"Class is a lot quieter," Brie said. "We don't get a lot of extra insight from each other because we already know each other's opinions on just about everything."

The Beyelers have one or two classes just for them, but that's not very feasible.

"We get smashed with either the grade above us or the grade below us," AnnaLee said.


Elementary students reside on one side of the building and high school students on the other, but students still regularly interact. Older students read to younger students and are very protective of their "younger siblings," teachers said.

Teachers enjoy watching students grow from childhood to adulthood.

Geary-Smith, a first- and second-grade teacher, has taught nearly every grade in 24 years.

"We know them and their families really well, which is a good thing," Geary-Smith said. "But sometimes there can be mixed emotions because a student has been labeled in an earlier grade and they don't get a chance to start fresh."

But that problem is rare, she said.

Geary-Smith said she brought her family to Leadore because it's a good place to raise a family. She loves her co-workers and the district, but has considered moving away.

"Sometimes I think it would be nice to be in a bigger school and have more input and get more stimulating activities," she said. "But things are easier here."


Increasingly, Leadore teachers are considering leaving the district due to budget cuts. Similar to districts across the state, after years of program cutbacks, depleted savings and vanishing federal funds, teacher salaries are on the chopping block.

Most District 292 teachers are facing about $4,000 in reductions next year.

"The schools will be fine - as teachers we can make due with whatever we have," Geary-Smith said. "But the stress and the discouragement in the message (teachers) are being sent from the state makes you want to walk away."

There is a real fear teachers might leave for more lucrative opportunities, Superintendent Erica Kemery said.

"In a little district like this in the middle of nowhere, you want to take care of your teachers because getting someone to replace them is not easy," Kemery said.

The school board is searching for ways to retain teachers. A supplemental levy has been suggested by administrators and teachers, but it is always rejected by the board.

The 600 to 650 people living in the district never have voted on the issue.

"We don't see how the people in the community can afford a levy at this time given the average income of the area," board vice-chairwoman Deb Foster said.

The Idaho Department of Labor estimated average household income in Lemhi County at $31,000 a year. School officials say the real average is closer to $14,000, based on data collected from the community.

The district also is shrinking. School enrollment has declined from more than 120 some 20 years ago to about 70 or so expected next year.

But no one believes the school or district is in any danger of closing.

"You just can't bus 6-year-olds 60 miles to school - it's just too far," Geary-Smith said.

Besides, people always will move to Leadore to be close to family or for the peaceful atmosphere, parent Laura Tomchak said.

"The pros outweigh the cons - you don't worry about gangs or bullying, teachers spend more time with students, and everyone gets the opportunity to participate in activities regardless of skill," Tomchak said, something that wouldn't happen at larger schools.

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