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Remoteness can be a strength for Dateland Elementary
Past Wellton, Roll, Tacna and Mohawk sits Dateland Elementary School, the only campus within the Hyder School District, about 65 miles east of Yuma off Interstate 8.
Serving 114 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students, the district covers over 428 square miles. Bus drivers often log over 400 miles a day to pick up students, some of which spend about an hour a day on the bus to and from school.
“I live in Wellton and it's like living in New York City compared to Dateland, we're pretty remote,” said Bob Sloncen, curriculum coordinator for the school.
Despite the remoteness of the school and being labeled by the Arizona Department of Education as the poorest district in Yuma County; Dateland Elementary School was recognized last year as one of four schools in the area to earn an “A” letter grade from the state for their AIMS scores growth and was also named a Title 1 High Performing Reward school.
Superintendent Pat Koury and Sloncen shared that they are very proud of their community school, which besides classrooms, a gymnasium and various sports fields also hosts a district library, a church, an ambulance and a fire truck run by two certified EMTs, staff housing as well as stalls for 4-H students to raise their fair animals. It also doubles as an emergency center when there are natural disasters or power outages as they have places for people to sleep and emergency generators as well as back up refrigerators and freezers.
“The school is the center of the community,” said Sloncen about the small 400-person town. “This is where we have quinceañeras, this is where we have weddings, this is where we have funerals, this is where we have athletic events... Everything is centered around the school.”
After losing about half of their student population when the nearby Whitewing Ranch closed, which used to be one of the larger grape ranches in the area, and many parents followed the farming jobs closer to Yuma, they said they are adjusting to the smaller numbers on their campus but are thankful for all the assistance and generosity they receive from the community.
In addition to their school being sponsored by the Fort Yuma Rotary Club, which has completed many projects on their campus, they also received solar panels to both save on electricity costs and also provide shade for students from Arizona Public Service and the Arizona School Facilities Board.
Church groups in Yuma also support the school, like St. Francis of Assisi School that bought a gift for every student in the school at Christmas time. Additionally, the Yuma Community Food Bank supports the school by providing backpacks for students through their backpack program filled with food and snacks for the kids and their families to eat over the weekend.
“The City of Yuma has always bent over backwards to help us,” said Koury. “I'd like to think it's because we have a good reputation and we've been here for so long.”
Both Sloncen and Koury have been working at Dateland Elementary for over 40 years. Koury added that they have a very low turnover rate for their staff as half of them have been on the campus for about 25 years.
“You would think people would only come here for a short amount of time and then leave because we're so isolated and this far away, but that's not the case,” said Sloncen. “... I think it's the feeling that they have that they're making a difference in children's lives and I think they know the administration and community is very supportive.”
With a student population made up of 95 percent Hispanics, Sloncen explained, kids often come in at the pre-kindergarten level only speaking Spanish. He noted that this offers them the unique opportunity to work with students on their campus at the preschool level so that they are ready for the statewide requirements by the time they reach the kindergarten-level.
“Many of our students are bilingual,” he said. “Which is a great trait for them to have.”
Also because of the small community environment of their school, students are able to have a lot of one-on-one time with their teachers, as well as extra help and tutoring that is offered after school three days a week.
Koury commented that they have been lucky enough to integrate a great deal of technology on the campus to make sure that students are up to speed with 21st century gadgets. Mostly though, he said with a chuckle, more time is often spent training the staff on technology as students pick it up very quickly.
While many students don't have televisions in their homes and none have internet in their homes, they have wireless internet for students to access through their library as well as a broadcast television to show various educational programs.
“Because our kids are so isolated, they don't get exposed to things,” said Sloncen. “... So we try to give them as much as we can to expose them to things that kids that live in Wellton and Yuma take for granted.”
They do this by bringing back former graduates back to the school to speak after graduating from places like Yale and Harvard and other major colleges in Arizona and also by raising funds for educational trips to places like Phoenix and San Diego and various Arizona colleges and universities.
“We let them know there's more out there for them,” said Sloncen.
To find out more about how to donate to the district through tax credits or to fund a trip for students visit www.hyderschools.org or call 928-454-2242.