By Linda Vanek
Rising unexpectedly from among the fertile orange groves on Highway 126 near Santa Paula, the “Little Red Schoolhouse” stands as a beacon of yesteryear, while continuing to educate the leaders of tomorrow. The wide and welcoming front porch of Santa Clara Elementary School has invited students through its doors since 1896.
A significant bond connects the parents who developed the school district in 1879 and the families of subsequent generations. They all wanted a quality education for their children and worked hard to provide the finest available. This is not a small town school that lives in the past. It’s a progressive school with current teaching methods that is housed in history. Imagine a school where a complete grade can fit around one table. The rare discipline problem is solved by a call to the parents. Students participate in art, music and perform in an end-of-the-year play and, not surprisingly, the API ranking is at the top of the chart. Santa Clara is that school today.
The current school campus combines the nostalgic beauty of the Historic Landmark schoolhouse with the needs of those in its classroom today. Students from over 100 years ago would recognize the peal of the bell that called them to school, but the copier in the foyer and computers in the classroom would be a surprise. Inside the red and white school building is a spacious, light and airy classroom that spans the width and about two-thirds of the depth of the building. Originally up to 65 students from eight grades were taught in the classroom. Today it houses kindergarten and first grade and is the room that the current school population of 55 students congregates for assemblies. Two portables were added in 1997 and they house grades 2-6.
A fascinating history is available on the website (www.scesd.k12.ca.us) written by Mary Alice Orcutt Henderson and Myrtle Dudley. The farmers who settled in the area developed and opened a simple wooden structure in the fall of 1879 with a teacher who earned $60 per month and taught 35 students. The basic subjects were reading, spelling, writing and arithmetic. The students sat on wooden benches and faced a wall when they studied, and the teacher when they recited. There wasn’t a playground until the students cleared the cactus and sage around the school.
The second building was a definite upgrade, with desks, blackboards and a nearby crumbling adobe ruin for imaginative play that was thought to be the home of one of Leo Carillo’s ancestors. One of the early, excellent teachers died in a tragic accident. After successfully evacuating the school, her long skirts caught on fire as she helped fight a nearby brush fire caused by sparks from a train. She died from her burns 12 days later. Hazards such as this were commonplace in the early days.
Even in 1895 there were bond campaigns to build schools. The men, who were the only people at the time with the right to vote, agreed 12 to 6 to spend $3,000 to buy land and build a school. Another vote placed the school in its current location. According to Henderson in her 1974 history, a recent renovation had cost $85,000.
While maintaining the red school house building is important, quality education is the reason that parents choose to send their children to the school. “It’s about the whole child,” comments Kari Skidmore, who wears many hats as the superintendent designee, principal and K-1 teacher. “They’re all our kids. We know every student.” The three teachers are able to discuss the needs of each child and provide intervention immediately when necessary. “The parents are supportive,” says Skidmore. “It’s a partnership. It’s like a family where everyone feels accountability for the student’s learning.”
Liberally praising the dedication and excellence of the school staff, Skidmore commends the teaching staff. “They are masters at classroom management and rotating classes,” she said. Each grade has between 6-10 students. Two instructional aides facilitate the small group work and the county provides speech and language support, as well as vision and hearing screening. The secretary is a multi-tasker who is able to complete her work while enjoying the progress of a second grade reader. The part-time custodian maintains the school campus that includes everything that larger schools have, including a baseball field, basketball court and playgrounds. There is no need for today’s students to clear away cactus to participate in the SPARKS physical education program.
The active Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) provides funds for many of the arts available at the school. There is a tone time choir, a weekly art teacher and a drama coach and choreographer. Each year the students perform a family-friendly play, such as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Peter Pan” on a stage in a nearby school. The School Site Council serves as an advisory board for categorical programs and a parent questionnaire provides input for the direction that the school takes. Year end learning labs have been created for parents to share their passion for subjects such as gardening, guitar, chess, Spanish, cake decorating and knitting with the students.
At the end of each year there is a whole school field trip to a surprise location. Last year the excited students visited the Long Beach Aquarium. The students enter the county spelling bee, science fair and track meet, and hot lunches are provided. There’s a student of the month assembly showcasing specific character traits, and Barnes and Noble gift cards are given to students who reach the 100 point club in the computerized Accelerated Reader program. The sixth graders even created a yearbook to commemorate the school year.
As a district of choice, Santa Clara can accept students from other schools, but it’s difficult to get into the school. The 20 students currently in the district boundaries have first priority. Then siblings of current students are able to fill empty places in each grade. Finally, the students on the waiting list are entered into a lottery drawing at a board meeting for any remaining openings. According to Skidmore, students typically need to start in Kindergarten because upper grade students don’t leave.
Returning students fondly remember the George Washington portrait in the assembly room that benevolently has watched the growth and education of each generation of students. In fact, there are current students who have grandparents who attended the “Little Red School House.” In the Ventura Free Press on August 28, 1896, the opening of the new school was announced. “It is one of the prettiest and most convenient buildings in the county and is a credit to the citizens of the district,” said the article.
It is still a credit to the citizens and children, one hundred and sixteen years later.
Santa Clara Elementary School
20030 E. Telegraph Road
Santa Paula, CA 93060