Community school excels on the summit | SierraSun.com

Community school excels on the summit

Andrew Cristancho
Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunStudents line up to use the climbing wall at Donner Trail School last week. The wall was constructed with funds raised from the annual fundraiser last year.

A small school tucked off Interstate 80 on top of Donner Summit has built a big reputation for scholastic excellence.

Donner Trail’s enrollment of 70 students make it the smallest elementary school in the district. And the school grounds can be one of the most extreme climates in the western United States, receiving an average of over 34 feet of snowfall per year.

So why bus your child into these conditions?

The small cadre of students consistently out-perform most other district schools ” an accomplishment many credit to involved volunteers, a small school atmosphere and dedicated parents.

“There are many reasons,” said Parent-Teacher Organization co-Chair Laura Murtha. “Probably the small school atmosphere is attracting parents. It is easier for a small group of teachers to set on one set of behavior standards. And we like the fact that from [kindergarten] through fifth grade the teachers are there through the entire experience.”

Murtha said the school staffs three full-time teachers one full-time teacher’s aid, one part-time P.E. teacher, one computer teacher one day a week and they depend on parent volunteers to head up the music program.

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Money from the school’s annual fundraiser, which totaled $18,000 last year, pays the total salary of teacher’s aid, Rondi Rembert. It also subsidizes the physical education instructor’s salary, part of the custodial budget, a weather research lab as well as much of the playground equipment, field trips, and the climbing wall, which is many of the children’s favorite indoor physical outlet.

The field trips include Yuba River Day, a day of environmental study and stewardship revolving around the headlands of the south fork of the river, which happens to be in the school’s backyard.

The children, with volunteer help from the Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships organization monitor water chemistry and plant and insect health, according to Kindergarten and first grade teacher Michelle Reed.

“Yeah, it’s really exciting and fun to learn about bugs,” fifth-grader Phoebe Rogers said enthusiastically.

This program and the others also depend on money raised from the annual fundraiser. The school’s programs also attract children from all over the district and some from outside of it.

“It started out as the summit community but recently we had a student come from Incline [Village].”

Donner Trail School ranks in the top percentile of the federally mandated testing required by No Child Left Behind, according to Ed-Data, an online cooperative that produces reliable nationwide school statistics.

“The district was going to close the school,” said Murtha. “A number of times, but the last time was two years ago.”

Two years ago, the district said Donner Trail was too small and too expensive to run, according to Murtha.

The 2006-07 budget for the school was $464,644, including $5,234 for maintenance and snow removal, according to Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s Assistant Superintendent of Business Earl Wammack.

Murtha said arguments for keeping the school open ” like being a service to the summit community ” out-weighed the district’s opinions.

“Recruiting is becoming tougher and tougher,” said Murtha’s husband Greg, Sugar Bowl ski resort’s director of marketing and sales. “The summit is one of the last affordable places to live [in the Truckee-Tahoe area].

Greg Murtha said many of his employees have children who attend the school, and as the summit community continues to grow more working class families are moving in.

Mike Livak, project manager for Royal Gorge ski area said he sympathizes with the need for a neighborhood school but does not currently have employees with children.

Through parent involvement and fundraising the Donner Trail parents have been successful in keeping their high-elevation school open.

And although some may see Parent Teacher Organization involvement as subsidizing the school district, Murtha says she sees it as fair.

“All public schools are competing for funds,” Murtha said. “When [the district] looks at the amount of teachers and students they have to weigh what is fair. I think we’re lucky there is a high expectation of parent volunteerism ” it’s the culture of that school.”