Banon Tarrant, 9, was standing in his new back-to-school clothes beside his mom while 15 of his new classmates started to follow one another in harmony to the "Happy Birthday" song in the school’s yard during recess.
It’s not typical for a school to celebrate the birthday of one of its students — even on the first day. But Pinehurst School in District 94 is not a typical public school in Jackson County, said Holly Amann, district administrator and Pinehurst Foundation treasurer.
Located on Highway 66 between Klamath Falls and Ashland, Pinehurst is the only school in its district. Once boasting 43 kids from preschool through middle school, Pinehurst this year welcomed 16 children in K-5 on its 109th first day of school.
“We have between seven students to 43 and everywhere in between,” said Thomas "Sam” Alvord, the school board’s chairman and recently retired part-time administrator at Pinehurst. “Young families just could not make a living here. ... But we are optimistic to see more young couples moving in town — we had nine kids at the beginning of the year last year, and now we are almost doubling that number.”
Alvord, a retired college professor from New York, said he has been with Pinehurst for 42 years. Even though their three children graduated from there years ago, Alvord and his wife have stayed with Pinehurst because they are committed to the community, he said.
Alvord said staff usually wear many hats without asking much in return. The entire staff is made up of parents and grandparents of either the current students or alumni, Alvord said.
“That’s just part of what it is for a school in this setting,” Alvord said. “We are very committed up here to keep our school open. ... So we soldier on.”
Pinehurst head teacher Kerry Fuller said the school is like a big family to her. Fuller, of Klamath Falls, said it’s worth the long commute every day to work “at such a unique and special place.” Her granddaughter Maddie joins Fuller every day at Pinehurst.
“The school is so embedded in the community, and the community is such a pivotal piece of making this school what it is,” Fuller said. “It has been very fun — and challenging. But I don’t do it alone. I got support and help, while I deliver the main instruction. But the fact that the community demands the best for the kids up here really put us in place.”
With a small-sized classroom and the personal approach in teaching, Pinehurst School has thrived on giving students more one-on-one time to learn and to develop social skills, Amann said. Its core curriculum, focusing in math and English, has set up a strong foundation for Pinehurst students to move forward, Alvord said.
“We are teaching literacy and numeracy — that’s our No. 1 priority,” Alvord said. “All the other stuff is just feeding into that, whether it’s outdoor activities or arts.”
According to its state report cards, Pinehurst consistently has ranked in the top 5 percent in the county and top 10 percent in the state in reading and mathematics skills. Three years ago, Pinehurst scored the highest score in math and second highest in English statewide.
Pinehurst School's enrollment took a dive in recent years with the decline of the logging industry and closure of its popular Pinehurst Inn in 2015. With families with young kids moving elsewhere for work, Pinehurst School closed down its middle school program in 2015. There were only 11 kids total enrolled that year, according to its report card.
But Alvord said as long as there’s a need for Pinehurst, the school will keep on teaching. For many families in Southern Oregon, Pinehurst provides an alternative public school experience, especially for their kids who are in Individualized Education Programs, he said.
“It’s very easy for Ashland to absorb us as a school district, but we have no interest in doing that,” Alvord said. “We also have a very high percentage of students with IEPs here. ... We can’t compete with Ashland, but we satisfy different needs up here.”
The Cottles sought out Pinehurst specifically for their daughter, Brooky.
A lively and energetic kindergartner, Brooky has a disorder that prevents her from breathing in her sleep. Brooky underwent a tracheostomy so a tube can be inserted in her throat and connected with a machine that helps Brooky breathe, her mom Dorindat explained as they demonstrated the machine to the whole class on the first day of school.
Sarah Fowley, one of the assistant teachers, said she had planned to homeschool her son, Sean, instead of admitting him to a preschool. But after an afternoon visit at Pinehurst three years ago, Fowley said staff completely won her over.
“I checked out all the schools in Ashland and I felt like they weren’t going to be a good fit for Sean,” Fowley said. “Then Sam called and invited me down here for a visit. ... It was clear that (Sean's) needs could be met in this small environment. And Sean has come so far here.”
The one-story red building along Highway 66 has housed Pinehurst School since 1908, but it’s the Pinehurst community that keeps the school alive, Alvord said.
From the playground on campus from the ‘80s to donated items for the school’s recent yard sale, the community has supported Pinehurst through thick and thin, Fuller said.
“The people, from young to old in this community, do invest in doing what is best for the children up here, and it drives everything we do,” she said. “We get so much from the community around us — they literally rally around the school. It’s a very, very nice thing to see.”
Star Tarrant, Banon’s mom, who just became an assistant teacher after her family moved to Pinehurst from Florida in June, said that community spirit has been contagious and affectionate even for newcomers.
“I asked Banon on his birthday what he was grateful for in his life, and he said there are two things he was most grateful for: First was his first knife, and second was the fact that we moved out here in Southern Oregon,” Tarrant said.
— Reach reporting intern Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.