JEFFREY CITY - A dog barked as the beige Suburban pulled into a grass driveway.
JEFFREY CITY — A dog barked as the beige Suburban pulled into a grass driveway.
Laura Dockery, 9, hopped off the front steps of her home, jeans tucked into bright blue cowboy boots. Her mother, Andrea, followed, carrying Laura’s purple backpack. The two crossed through the livestock gate that separated their ranch from the rest of the frontier.
It was just after dawn on the first day of school. Laura’s school bus had arrived.
“You glad school’s startin’ back up?” the driver of the Suburban, Phillip Moody, 68, asked.
“No,” Laura said with a big smile. She climbed up into the seat. Her mother buckled her in.
“Bein’ off is more fun, huh?” Moody said.
Laura waved as her mother stepped away and Moody backed the Suburban from the drive.
It would be nearly an hour on the highway and one more stop at another ranch home before the Suburban arrived at Jeffrey City Elementary School, where one teacher and two students are all who remain of a once-bustling home on the range.
'Biggest bust of them all'
Laura and her classmate, 5-year-old Colton Citron, bolted through the front doors of their school, giggling as they passed dozens of old athletic trophies displayed in a glass case.
The trophies speak volumes of the school’s past.
When the uranium industry exploded after World War II, prospectors found stores of the mineral near Jeffrey City, then a roadside community consisting of little more than a post office, gas station and a few souls.
Jeffrey City became a company town in the 1950s, named after a financial backer of the area’s first uranium producer. Uranium demand dropped in the 1960s, but Jeffrey City bounced back, attracting mining families who built roads, houses, parks, restaurants, a beauty salon and a bowling alley. At its peak in 1980, Jeffrey City was home to more than 4,000 people. Some 600 students walked the halls of the Jeffrey City Elementary and High School, which was its own school district until 1997.
But all that has passed.
Jeffrey City did not survive uranium’s bust in the early 1980s. By 1982, 1,000 people remained. Homes were wheeled away, leaving bald concrete foundations and unhooked utility pipes sprouting from the ground. Families left in droves.
Today, fewer than 100 people live in the town. In the school's lone working classroom, two desks sit side by side. Hallways of classrooms built decades ago are now empty, abandoned around 1997. Empty chairs are stacked along windows; lunch menus hang on office walls; chemistry supplies deteriorate on classroom shelves.
In the classroom on the first day of school, teacher Lara Burke, 46, recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her class.
“We take our right hand and put it over our heart,” Burke said. “OK, Laura, want to start us off?”
Laura relishes having a classmate for a change. Last year, the only other student at Jeffrey City Elementary moved away mid-year, leaving Laura and Burke for one-on-one instruction until the summer. Laura showed Colton the motions to a phonics song, helped him tie his shoes and steadied his hand while he dropped a cupful of sugar into their cooking experiment.
“They’re close,” Burke said.
A teacher for two
Few grade school students have recess on an abandoned stretch of prairie.
But Laura and Colton seemed to prefer the acres of dilapidated school grounds to the modern-day play equipment in their school’s front yard.
After lunch they trekked past cracked windows and a “No Trespassing” sign, through the knee-high dry grass and antelope scat to reach what used to be a playground in the days of Jeffrey City’s uranium boom.
“Hey! Hey! I think I found something,” Colton said from behind a rubber tire.
“Look, Ms. Burke,” Laura said, peering inside another upturned tire. “A spider’s web.”
For Burke, a veteran teacher starting her second year as the lone educator at Jeffrey City Elementary, exploration is key to learning. Laura and Colton spend little time at their desks. Instead, hands-on activities take them to the kitchen, to the computer lab that doubles as a math room and to the floor to build words or read books.
Burke must be resourceful when the nearest town is an hour’s drive. Last year, the school oven broke with dozens of pies yet to bake for a social. Improvising, Burke took the class to a nearby church to cook. When Burke realized she forgot eggs for Laura and Colton’s first-day-of-school cookies recently, she called a nearby homeschooling family to deliver some.
Teaching a fourth-grader and kindergartener, she also balances two curricula at once.
“It’s a challenge,” Burke said.
She brought a reading textbook to Laura’s desk on the first day of school and opened it to a page of block text. Laura sat quietly reading while Burke worked through letters of the alphabet and first-day jitters with Colton.
“We have 26 friends,” Burke said, pointing to a list of letters each with an animal caricature. “Can you find a bear?”
Colton peered up, then pointed at the alphabet’s second letter.
“We’re going to reach up and grab honey from a tree and stick it in our mouths,” Burke said. “And we’ll say ‘buh.’ Can you say ‘buh’?”
Colton shied away. Burke leaned closer.
“Can you whisper ‘buh’?” Burke said.
Colton looked uneasily back at Laura, who had found a thick pair of headphones to help her concentrate on her own reading. He cupped his hands around his mouth and stood on his tiptoes to whisper in Burke’s ear.
“Awesome,” Burke said, giving him two thumbs up.
Dollars and sense
Jeffrey City Elementary did not always have a student body you could count on one hand, Moody, the bus driver, said.
“Years ago, we had up to seven, eight kids with the ranchers and all,” Moody said. “But they moved on.”
The school district has tried everything to keep the school open since the last high school students graduated, he said. Students have been bused into Lander to attend school there. They have tried recruiting families to host students in town during the week.
But despite the high cost of maintaining a school for two students, closing Jeffrey City Elementary is not an option, Kirk Schmidt, assistant superintendent for Fremont County School District 1, said.
“It’s 65 miles from Jeffrey City to Lander,” Schmidt said. “So you start looking at busing elementary kids, kindergartners. … That’s pretty tough on little guys.”
From a straight economics standpoint, Schmidt said, there’s no question it would be cheaper to shutter the school.
“But is that the right thing for the kids?” he said.
A statewide model generates funding for Wyoming schools in a way that takes enrollment into account. Revised for fairness after years of Wyoming Supreme Court decisions, the state’s school funding model adjusts resources for its rural schools, each of which the state considers having fewer than 49 active students, said Jed Cicarelli, school foundation supervisor for the Wyoming Department of Education.
“There shouldn’t be a disadvantage to going to a rural school,” Cicarelli said of the way the state’s funding model works. “Essentially, the model’s intent is to provide the same education in Jeffrey City as they would get at Natrona or Laramie County.”
The state provides funding for one teacher for each seven students and reimburses travel and maintenance costs for rural schools, Cicarelli said. Closing down a rural school that is becoming too expensive, he said, is a decision for the local school board, not the state.
“What we have tried to do, in as long as I’ve been associated with education policy, is try to give districts and parents as many choices as possible,” Mary Kay Hill, deputy policy director to Gov. Matt Mead, said. The role of the state is to provide funding to schools outside city centers. Doing so, she said, honors Wyoming’s rural tradition.
Late in the afternoon at Jeffrey City Elementary, the first day of school wound down. Their cookies made, hand-mixed ice cream eaten and afternoon reading finished, Laura and Colton packed up their bags.
Burke quietly switched off the light and gave an errant scooter a kick into a corner.
Colton hid in the dark outside the girls' restroom, waiting for Laura to emerge.
“Boo!” Colton said when she arrived. “I scared ya, didn’t I?”
Laura helped Colton strap both his arms through his superhero-themed backpack. She plucked his camouflage hat off the coat rack and set it on his head, backwards.
There are few things Laura dislikes about her life on a Wyoming ranch outside Jeffrey City. She’s not crazy about the beavers, for instance, or the snakes. But she rides her horse, Sparky, as much as her mother will let her. She likes catching snails for free. When she grows up, she wants to be a rancher.
But most of all, she said, she likes how people call Jeffrey City a ghost town.
“You can look in the windows,” she said. “And imagine how it was when it was booming.”