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Not so little school on the prairie

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Penasco Elementary School is located in west Chaves County between Hope and Mayhill on U.S. 82 but is part of the Artesia public school system. This building was constructed about 6 or 7 years ago and contains a spacious gymnasium. (Timothy P. Howsare Photo)

It’s like one big family at Penasco Elementary School with grades K through eighth and only two teachers. Five of the students have parents and grandparents who also attended the rural school.

You might say that the one-room school house with a wood stove has been upgraded to the two-room school with HVAC and Wi-Fi, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate.

Penasco Elementary School, which traces its roots to a log-construction school erected in the fertile Rio Penasco Valley in 1883, has much more than just two classrooms.

Between its two buildings — the newest built six or seven years ago and the older one built in 1954 — there is a gym, science room, art room, cafeteria, library and three classrooms. Outside there is a playground.

One of the classrooms, however, is being used for storage.

Only 16 students are attending the school this year so there isn’t a need for the third classroom. The students range from kindergarten through the eighth grade, and there are only two teachers, Cassie Malone and Tammy Elkins.

Elkins teaches grades K-3. If she sends one of her students to the principal, the mischievous youngster doesn’t even have to leave her classroom because she also is the principal. Not only that, she is the parent of one child and the grandparent of two others.

Malone teaches fourth, sixth and eighth grades. So who teaches fifth and sixth grade? No one right now, because there are no students in those grades.

The school has a third staff member, Eugenia Granados, who is custodian and runs the cafeteria.

When the school day ends at 4 p.m., Elkins and Malone don’t call it quits. Both of them have a school bus to drive to take the kiddos home.

While Penasco Elementary School doesn’t have any extracurricular activities, Elkins said the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages to attending the small school, which is part of Artesia Public Schools although it is in Chaves County.

“It’s like family here,” she said. “I have known these kids for years and years.”

When asked, nearly all of the students said they enjoy the family-like atmosphere. One boy commented that there is no bullying at Penasco like at bigger schools.

Most of the students live on the ranches that span this sparsely populated area of Chaves County.

Elkins guessed that the longest traveling distance for one student is 55 minutes.

“We have a little boy who has about a 25-minute drive to the bus stop and then a 30-minute bus ride,” she said.

But there’s more for kids to do than just helping out their parents with the ranch.

Elkins said the older kids can participate in city league baseball and basketball in Artesia, as well as belonging to FFA.

Considering its remote location, the facilities and equipment at Penasco are quite modern and upscale. The 1954 building and the two small school buses are in great condition. Penasco would be the envy of most urban schools.

“Every kid has a laptop and we have a great playground. The kids love it,” Elkins said. “The Artesia district takes great care of us.”

The instruction is first rate as well, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department.

“We are very proud to be an ‘A’ school for 2016 and ‘17 and working on being an ‘A’ school for this year,” Elkins said.

Five of the students are from third-generation families. The first two are Kendi Burnett, kindergarten, and Allie Elkins, first grade. Then there are the Hendricks brothers, Beau, first grade, Landon, third grade and A.C., fourth grade.

If you put Penasco Elementary School into a historical context, it is actually a “big school,” because it came into existence from the merger of three smaller schools.

Information about the history of the school was written by the late Ernestine Chesser Williams and published in a two-part series in the Vistas section of the Roswell Daily Record in February 1998.

A log school built in 1910 burned in 1928 or 1929, leaving nothing but a charred mass of rumble.

A local rancher, Bryan Runyan, offered an abandoned building on his property across the creek from the school site.

Williams wrote that she began her teaching career at the school in 1934, during the Great Depression.

“School conditions had changed very little from the early frontier schools, as there was no electricity, no running water nor telephone,” she wrote.

Chaves County began furnishing textbooks, but the parents were responsible for all other supplies.

Elkins said that the Elk, Dunken and Flying H schools were all consolidated with Penasco.

The Lower Penasco School was built in 1930 but closed in 1954 when the new one was constructed.

This three-teacher school was part of the Chaves County School System until 1957, when the “Home of the Cowboys and Cowgirls” came under the jurisdiction of the Artesia School System.

Elkins has taught at Penasco for 29 years and said it is both challenging and rewarding to teach “all subjects at all grade levels.”

She remembers a time when there were about 30 students attending the school, nearly double that of the present student body.

Though the rural lifestyle still has its appeal, it can be hard to make a living so far away from a population center and/or the gas and oil industry.

“The ranching community and ranching industry are not thriving anymore,” Elkins said.

Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or vistas@rdrnews.com.