Breaking Away

Idaliaís students may have only one school, but at least itís theirs.

On nights when the Idalia Wolves challenge the Liberty Knights in basketball, farmers and ranchers get in their pickups and head to town. They pull into the Idalia School parking lot, where they leave their keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked. They file into the school's new gym, and when the Wolves score, they shake the rafters with their boot-stomping. Afterward, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends head up the main road to the Route 36 Grille and Pub to celebrate or commiserate.

Idalia is a desolate town on the wind-whipped plains of eastern Colorado, sixteen miles west of the Kansas border. Only ninety people reside here; another 400 live in the vast surrounding farmland. The school is situated at the upper end of town and a little to the left. About 150 students attend classes here, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The other three schools in the East Yuma County School District are in Wray, a town of 2,000 people 26 miles north of Idalia.

Ever since 1958, when 26 eastern Colorado school districts were combined into two -- the East and West Yuma County School Districts -- Idalia and Wray have been paired in a marriage of unequals.

High grades: Jim Rittenhouse is proud of the way his community fought for its own school district.
David Rehor
High grades: Jim Rittenhouse is proud of the way his community fought for its own school district.

For instance, in 1984, voters in east Yuma County approved a $6.4 million bond initiative to fund their four schools; $6 million of it went to build a new combination elementary/high school in Wray. The remaining $400,000 went to Idalia, which got a locker room and a library.

"For over ten years, we've been paying for new schools in Wray, and we've only gotten a pittance out here," says Gary Soehner, a former school-board member who represented Idalia. "We feel like we're the stepchild. What it boils down to is that these are communities of two different sizes, and each has its own problems. Five of the seven members of the East Yuma County Board of Education live near Wray -- and that's the way it should be, considering the number of students in the Wray schools versus the number of students attending school in Idalia -- and what happens is that the problems in Wray garner the most attention and get the most response."

Soehner adds that having one entity governing schools in both communities "is like one board of directors trying to manage a big company and a small company with two sets of problems. Idalia is our community, and we wouldn't have a community in Idalia if we didn't have a school. When we go to ballgames, we go over and eat at the cafe and meet people from ten or fifteen miles on the other side of Idalia; the only time you see them is at school functions, and those functions are well-attended."

To get what they want -- the new gym where the Wolves play, for instance -- the people of Idalia have had to rely on themselves, raising money on their own rather than waiting for state funding.

But all of that is about to change. Last year a law was passed that will allow Idalia to split from the East Yuma County School District and form a district of its own. If the separation is approved by east Yuma County voters, it will put the independent folks in Idalia in the exciting -- and frightening -- position of finally being able to shape their own destiny.


Jim Rittenhouse's social studies class is in the last room on the left. Lockers line the narrow hallway, and tiny coats hang on hooks next to adult-sized gray-and-maroon letter jackets. This wing of the school, with its cold linoleum floors and low ceilings, was built in 1949 and hasn't changed since. At lunchtime every day, Rittenhouse's sixth-graders place their chairs on top of their desks before following their teacher from the old part of the school for the brief outdoor crossover to the new part, where the gym and the cafeteria are. It's the part Rittenhouse helped build.

In 1992, Rittenhouse and Soehner were on an accountability committee charged with determining how to make Idalia a better place. When the committee called a town meeting in the old gym to discuss ways to improve Idalia, a list of possibilities -- ranging from recruiting a Wal-Mart or a McDonald's to building a new gym -- was posted on the wall. The 300 people in attendance were each given a sticker and asked to place it on what they thought was the most important idea. A new school gym, cafeteria, preschool, computer lab and clinic got the most stickers.

"In Idalia, everyone has a say in what happens," says Kyle Kite, a senior in the high school. "I can't imagine another city handing out stickers to five-year-olds. I think that's what's really cool about Idalia. It's not just a certain group of older people working on stuff."

But when it came time for them to build their building, "we had to do it ourselves," Soehner says. "The school board only committed $250,000 to a $1.2 million project."

So Rittenhouse and more than thirty other Idalia residents formed the nonprofit Vision Foundation to raise the rest of the money. Between 1992 and 1996 -- well before the last cinder block was put into place on the 27,000-square-foot building -- the foundation managed to collect nearly $1 million, approximately $200,000 from the pockets of the townspeople and the rest from local businesses and trusts.

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