From Marfa Public Radio:
In the tiny West Texas town of Valentine, population 130, there’s no gas station, and it’s a 30-mile drive to the nearest grocery store. But there is a school, and somehow, year after year, it outperforms the state average in academics.
Junior high gym class is a good place to start to better understand why the students at Valentine Independent School District earn high marks every year.
A group of kids huddle up at the edge of the basketball court, watching a classmate gear up to take a free-throw. The stakes are higher than normal; if she misses, everyone has to run sprints.
“If you don’t make it, we’re not friends anymore!” one student yells.
She sinks the shot to cheers of, “Looks like we’re staying friends!” And then, “Well, we probably would have stayed friends anyways.”
Seventh-grader Claudia Figueroa agrees, saying, “It’s, like, such a small school-community type thing.” “You can’t stay mad at anyone for very long.”
Figueroa has two other classmates in her grade at Valentine ISD, Ed and Fabiola.
“The days when someone is gone, you can tell,” she says. “At first, me and Fabiola are like, ‘Yes! We don’t have Ed today.’ And later, when it’s all quiet, we’re like, ‘Where’s Ed?’”
Students in Valentine spend all of their time together. It’s the first secret ingredient that makes the school so successful: everyone gets along, because they have to. History teacher and coach Rebekah Oñate is thankful for that, because she says it means she doesn’t have to spend time policing classroom behavior; she can just focus on the job.
“I’ve always admired my teachers,” Oñate says. “They were such a big part of my life in school. And my coaches even more so.”
Oñate’s the youngest teacher at Valentine ISD; she recently finished college in El Paso where she studied criminal justice and political science. She says Valentine is a great place to learn the ins and outs of teaching, but she’s still adjusting to small-town life.
“I miss the constant hum of traffic, or lights … stuff like that. I don’t like to leave the house at night. It is extremely dark and I am a scaredy cat,” she says.
Valentine is really isolated. There’s no gas station, no stores. The school is the heartbeat of the community. To get a Coke in town, you go to the vending machine in the schoolyard.
But being in the middle of nowhere actually works to the school’s advantage in some ways. Currently, Valentine ISD has 39 students and 10 teachers. That can mean teachers are responsible for curricula across many grade levels, but Superintendent Debbie Engle says the high student-to-teacher ratio is another reason the students do so well at the school, especially when it comes to state tests.
“Every time, you know, I’m tickled to death when our scores come out, and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope we can do that again next year,’” Engle says. “Because I understand how little it would take to flip it.”