Working toward a high school diploma is important for all teens. But if you live in a remote hamlet - say Grouse Creek, in rural north-western Utah - getting to school to achieve that goal can be more challenging than the typical 3-mile, or half-hour, bus ride.
In fact, you pretty much have to move away from home to do it.Because the small school in Grouse Creek teaches only kindergarten through 10th grade, students have for generations gone far afield to finish their basic schooling, a situation that has pluses and minuses.
"It's not too bad," said Tom Tanner, a senior at Raft River High School in Malta, Idaho, 75 miles north of his hometown of Grouse Creek - over a mountain pass often closed down by winter snow. Although he's jumped around a bit, finding lodging in Malta where he could, he now boards there with his sister, who moved to town after marrying last year.
By living in Malta, he's greatly enlarged his circle of friends and - a key benefit in his book - been able to participate in high school rodeo. His specialty is roping.
"The bad side is, you haven't got anyone there to help you out," he said. "If you need something from home, it's a long way away."
Ryan Stowell has gone even farther from home. He lives with relatives in Salt Lake City - 230 or so roundabout miles from Grouse Creek. Now a senior at Highland High School, he wanted to try out for the football team in 10th grade, and along the way he discovered rugby. Getting up a team for much of anything in Grouse Creek was pretty difficult.
"We tried to play football with as many people as we could gather, but it wasn't anything - it was more like five on five," he said.
Grouse Creek is an extreme example among Utah public schools, though several sprawling districts have to deal with long commutes and educating small numbers of students in remote areas. Even within the huge Box Elder School District, of which the small town is a part, there are additional scenarios.
Park Valley, on U-30 east of Grouse Creek, also offers a full program through the 10th grade, notes Kirk Allen, the district's director of student services. Then those children, too, must "come into town and live with friends or families, mostly in Tremonton," Allen said.
Snowville, to the north on I-84, is marginally closer to larger towns. "Their program is kindergarten through fifth grade, then those in sixth to 12th grades are bused into Tremonton," about 30 miles to the east.
Many of the families in these far-flung communities have relatives living on both sides of the Utah-Idaho border, so the two states have agreements allowing students to attend the school that is most convenient.
"In a couple of situations I know of, the mother has moved into Tre-mon-ton and set up a home there, usually if they have more than one child, and they'll go back out on the weekends and help the father with the farming chores," Allen said.
In a combination of district and state funding, families receive stipends to help defray the costs of having children attend distant high schools, says Dave Morrell, Box Elder's school business administrator. The funds represent the money that would theoretically be needed to transport students to and from school, as well as living expenses for substitute care.
Needless to say, long-distance schooling can present a variety of hurdles for families.
"We have nine children," noted Kathleen Tanner, Tom's mother, "and Thomas is one of our younger ones, so we've had a lot of kids go away to high school, including six girls that preceded him. Some of them have done very well, excelled, and some of them had a very rough time, fighting the home-sickness."
One negative, she said, is "you miss out on your kids' high school - about the time you need to keep a tight rein, you have to let them go."
In addition, high school teachers do not get to know the parents of students from Grouse Creek. For example, "It's hard for me to get there to parent-teacher conferences," she says. "They don't have any connection with us, to know if we're good people or bad people or what we are."
On the positive side, "I think it helps them to grow up and be a lot more responsible," Kathleen Tanner said. "They learn they have to manage their money, make it last for a week, and have to live at someone else's house, sort of like going to college."
Ryan Stowell's mom, Diane Tanner, has an added perspective on all this, for she also happens to be the head teacher at Grouse Creek School, where she has been a part- and full-time educator for 10 years.
The stone structure is bigger than the stereotypical "one-room schoolhouse" of lore, and in fact serves as something akin to a community center. Diane Tanner shares the primary teaching re-spon-si-bilities with Rob Beuker. Tanner teaches most of the upper grades, while Beuker instructs the younger kids, though they trade off for some subjects.
"I do the art and P.E., and he does math and science for all the kids," Diane Tanner said. "That's this year anyway. Next year it may be different."
Beuker's wife helps out with the few kindergarteners, and the two certified teachers are assisted by an aide/secretary and a "distance learning facilitator," for Grouse Creek is linked by cameras to the statewide educational TV network.
"We have cameras right in the classroom, and they can see other classes and the instructors can look at them," the head teacher said. "We have one or two classes going on every trimester. We even have a woman who is taking classes - a fairly full load - and getting her college degree."
Diane Tanner does not believe the younger Grouse Creek students miss out on a thing. Because of the small classes, the teachers stir courses together.
"I taught a class in photography," she said, "and we'd tell the kids to bring their bikes and bring a backpack, we'd pack a lunch and take water bottles and head up to Devil's Gate, taking pictures and writing poetry on the way."
However, from observation and personal experience, Diane Tanner sees the division of families at the critical high school stage as a difficult thing.
"I think it's the worst part of living here," she said.
She also sympathizes with the surrogate parents who take in boarders, whether they're relatives of the students or not. "It's hard for other people to tell your kids `no' or `do your jobs.' "
The move away from home can also prove to be permanent, a fact of life in remote, economically challenged Grouse Creek. The community today has a population of fewer than 100 people, down from 400 a few decades ago. The school has 21 students. When teens head off to a high school far away, they have new experiences, meet new people - and very often do not come back to stay.
"I would say almost all of the girls never come back," Diane Tanner said. Many boys do if there's a family ranch or jobs available at a larger operation.
That's what Tom Tanner wants to do. After finishing up at Raft River High School, he wants to go to college to study animal science and agriculture. "Then I want to come back here to work a ranch," he said. "That's pretty much my hope."
Ryan Stowell moved to Grouse Creek when he was in second grade and discovered that he loved exploring on his motorcycle as a boy. "It gave me a lot of area to do that."
He still likes it there. "I wish there were more people there, though."
Now that he's moved on to the big city, his mother isn't sure Ryan will return for good.
"My son isn't into ranching much," Diane Tanner said.
Still, while a few children come to resent what they missed while growing up in isolated Grouse Creek, for most, "this is home," she said, "and they take every opportunity to come home."