Two teachers in Jamestown strive to keep their students together after schoolhouse closes

People of the Year

Gay Paxton continues to teach Jamestown\'s kids.
photo by Elizabeth Miller

The first day the Jamestown Elementary School teachers could get back to the two-room schoolhouse in Jamestown after the floods in September, there were still huge boulders alongside barely-there roads. The road to the schoolhouse was washed out entirely — in its place, a bare cliff. The detour route led past house after house torn open or mud-stained or half-buried in rocks and rubble after the onslaught that Jim Creek had become. The effect was stirring. “When I saw it, the first time up there to get supplies for the school, I was just, I couldn’t believe the impact of the water, that the water could be such a strong force,” says Ines Rutkovskis, who teaches third through fifth grades at the elementary school. “It was so weird, because the first like half-hour I couldn’t do anything, I was so shaken up after seeing all that damage,” says Gay Paxton, Jamestown elementary’s kindergarten through second grade teacher. “I just, I wanted to leave right away. … If [Ines] hadn’t been with me, I would have left. … It was hard, really hard. … I know those people really well.”

She tears up as she talks about how devastating it was — her stepson and his wife live in Jamestown and lost their home and the land that went with it — and just then, a third-grader finishing her reading assignment comes up and says, “Ms. Gay, I finished chapter 12.”

Paxton draws a breath and says, “How about you come up with three questions about the chapter for me, OK?” More than three months after the flood, backhoes are still scraping the roads in and out of Jamestown clear of mud and dirt. Asphalt is stacked up on the side of the road, which has been washed down to one lane in places. Pine trees lay browning in the widened creek beds, some braced up against the guardrails or bridge rails or dirt embankments, and it’s clear where hillsides gave way, burying roads, and that the water shoved absolutely everything out of its way.

Jamestown had lost a beloved local, Joe Howlett, former owner of the Jamestown Mercantile, and many of the residents had been carried out to safety by helicopters. Some 60 of them had spent a night in the Jamestown schoolhouse as an emergency evacuation center, sleeping on pads used for the kids’ gym classes and wrapped in blankets gathered from the homes on the north side of town that weren’t cut off by the raging waters.

The schoolhouse that served as emergency lodging is one of only a few one-room schoolhouses left in the country (neighboring town Gold Hill claims one as well). It’s home to about 20 students from the time they start kindergarten until they finish fifth grade, and they’ll have the same teacher from kindergarten to second grade, Paxton, and then from third to fifth grade, Rutkovskis.

The town, now, is eerily quiet and the schoolhouse that should be teeming with the noise of children, the playground that should have seen the snow tracked out of it, is silent and the snow on the door steps untouched. A handwritten sign offers details on when and where to pick up personal items left behind after class ended that Wednesday before it started to rain.

What has stepped in to fill the hole where homes and bridges and roads once were is a fervent sense of community, and insistence on staying together. Despite the massive environmental upheaval surrounding them, the people of Jamestown are trying to keep their kids on sound footing. So when the floodwaters washed away the road to their school, their families held a meeting and said the best thing was to keep the kids together. Paxton and Rutkovskis, heeding the call of the parents in the community, have kept two now divided groups of students together. Jamestown Elementary has become Jamestown West, the location at the camp in Ward with Paxton leading the classroom, and Jamestown East, at the Community Montessori school in Boulder, where Rutkovskis meets with the six students whose homes in Jamestown were so severely damaged they’ve relocated to Boulder for now.

“What they’ve experienced makes them in need of community that they know and that they’re familiar with,” Rutkovskis says. “I think if they were plopped into different schools, all separated, I think it would have been really hard to adapt. This way they have me and Gay and [paraprofessional] Beth [Brotherton] as strong rocks, or like a foundation, to keep them moving forward.”

At a meeting among the parents of the kids who live in the Bar-K Ranch just above Jamestown, the idea came up that perhaps they could create their own school. (Some parents were considering home school at this point anyway. Signing kids up for the 45-minute bus ride on the coils of the Peak to Peak Highway, Highway 72, between Ward and Nederland in winter, just wasn’t an option.)

“The kids had gone through so much with the floods. … They had just gone through so much turmoil that it was really important to us to keep the kids together — not bused to Nederland, because that’s not our home,” says Tessa Stampes, mother of a 7-year-old boy currently enrolled at Jamestown Elementary, a 12-yearold girl who completed her K-5 education there, and a 4-year-old boy who is expected to start kindergarten there next year.

The idea of hosting school at their house started for Stampes and her husband, Jeff, as a bit of a joke, but it caught on. So by the Wednesday a week after the flood, school resumed, with 13 of the students coming to classes with Paxton in the living room of their house in Bar-K Ranch with the kind of mountain character that often leaves the houses mostly obscured by the pine trees.

“When it’s that kind of trauma, they think, and I have to agree with them, that it’s better to keep as much stability as you can in their lives,” Paxton says. “They were adamant about keeping the kids together, and I think it was a great thing. I think it turned out to be really good, and I feel really privileged to be able to do it.”

“Nobody could have done it quite the same way,” says Scott Boesel, principal of Flatirons Elementary and the Jamestown Elementary School. “You couldn’t have taken any other group of parents and teachers and students and made it work. A family opening up their living room just wouldn’t happen.”

For two months, that was the schoolroom for these kids. Some of them could, for the first time, bike to school. Without desks, they started doing their work on clipboards, and on nice autumn days made use of a large table on the porch. A play area was set up in the kitchen. The Stampes even replaced the flooring in their home to put down a hard surface instead of carpet for the kids, Home Depot donated materials to put up a wall of corkboard, and volunteers from Jamestown coordinated an effort to get tables and chairs from the Jamestown school to the Stampes’ living room even before the roads were repaired and while people were still using ropes to manage the steep slopes left after the multiple mudslides in Jamestown.

Then, the school district negotiated to relocate the students to a Christian camp just a few miles up the road from the Bar-K Ranch, and transformed a building emptied for the season into an elementary school classroom, adding a bathroom and appliances to the kitchen.

“That place went from bare concrete and walls to carpet and school desks in just a couple weeks,” says the interim camp manager who oversaw the school’s move-in.

The December winds howl around the improvised schoolhouse in Ward — it’s roughly the same size as the classroom Paxton used, and there’s a divided section with tables. When Paxton says it’s lunchtime, the kids leap up from their tasks, retrieve lunch bags from the cubbies loaned to Jamestown West from another school and take seats at the tables.

Half the room looks like a typical elementary school classroom, with bright letters of alphabets and numbers up to 100 hanging on the walls, and tubs of rainbow-colored “manipulatives” — objects to count on and practice math — even desks with headphones at the ready for kids to put in a tape and listen to a book being read, and shelf after shelf of childrens’ books. Paxton spent evenings packing up the contents of her classroom in Jamestown and then unpacking it at the camp. It’s the books, she says, that were the biggest thing to get out of the Jamestown schoolhouse and back to the kids, who speed right through them, but she’s now received so many donated books the task of hauling them back to the schoolhouse in Jamestown looks daunting.

At the end of the room, near where the camp has a fireplace and stage set up, a sign on the wall reads “music” and music notes hover around it, ready for the music teacher who comes once a week. At another corner of the room, mesh bags loaded with balls and a rack hung with hula hoops wait for the twiceweekly visits from a P.E. teacher.

All the moving around and missed days in September means it’s been a bit of a crunch to get everyone up to speed.

With all the kids in one room, Paxton has to teach one grade level out loud to everyone and individualize with assignments — like giving the second grade-level math lesson and tailoring individual assignments to the skill level of the first graders and kindergarteners sitting through that lesson. For reading assignments, students pair up with someone at the same level to read beside, seated on a pillow with a blanket spread over their two laps, or studiously perched at their desks. Writing assignments see many of the kids reaching for the sturdy, black laptops the district purchased for each student in class.

Paxton works individually with each kid as much as three times a day, taking notes on what they worked on, what issue they might have had and what projects they’ve got ongoing so she can pick up where she left off the day before. A thick threering binder holds her notes for writing, and one of equal size holds the notes for math.

Paxton’s desk is busy with their requests and questions as they work through a writing assignment: thank you notes for a pair of Naropa students who came for a dance workshop with them.

One first grader just pulls up a chair and her paper and pencil so she can ask perpetual “How do you spell …?” questions. While a fifth grader waits for his turn to ask Paxton for help — turns out, he wants to brainstorm what to write — the first grader asks, “How do you spell ‘rock’?” and he leans over to answer it for her.

That’s the thing that makes it like a family, Paxton says, that the kids all help one another out. It’s the opposite of bullying. The weakest among them gets the most help. They share without being told.

“If somebody’s struggling with an assignment or something, I don’t even have to ask, they just jump in and help,” Paxton says.

Paxton worked as a paraprofessional in schools for years, a single mom taking care of her son and working while slowly chipping away at the teaching certificate she finished at age 50 — a point by which many teachers, who qualify for retirement at age 55, begin thinking about retirement. But Paxton instead is looking ahead to a particularly emotional fifth grade graduation this year, when the two students who started with her as kindergarteners six years ago, the first year she taught at Jamestown, move on to middle schools in Nederland or Boulder. “I think I have the best job in the whole world. I really do,” Paxton says. “It would be a really hard job to leave, because no matter when you leave, you’re leaving a family that you’ve had for forever.”

Ten years ago, Rutkovskis took the job teaching at Jamestown as her first after finishing her teaching degree in New England, where she’d worked at a multi-age school in Vermont.

“When the job opened up, I knew it was for me. I just knew,” says Rutkovskis, who volunteered with the Peace Corps in Ecuador for three years. “I like a different kind of setting. I’m used to working on my own a lot. … We’re kind of on our own up there. … And I like the mountain setting, the independence of doing something different, not just the regular teacher classroom.”

At one time, she had 22 students — kindergarten to fifth grade, including five pairs of siblings — to herself, with one part-time paraprofessional to help. After persuading the district to hire a second teacher, she got to choose Paxton as her partner in teaching at the school.

“It’s like a home away from home,” Rutkovskis says.

“When they’re together this long, they’re like family,” Paxton says. “It’s just such a different feel here than it is in a larger school, because everybody’s so close, everybody’s so kind. One of the things the parents really like about this school is that the older kids are really kind to the younger kids and really caring, and they teach each other.”

For now, her kids are in a separate room at the Community Montessori School in South Boulder. They’re hoping to go back at the start of the next school year.

“I miss our mountain school, where we could go for hikes to the mine and the cemetery and the post office. Where we include locals in the classroom,” Rutkovskis says.

One of her students lived below the mountain the mudslide came down from, and waded with her family through mudflow up to her waist to get out of the house and to the other side of the hill, leaving behind everything but what they had on their backs. She’s putting that story with others into a video the kids are making, telling the story of the flood from their own perspectives. And what kind of perspectives do they bring?

“Just how scary it was,” Rutkovskis says. “How they want to teach other kids and families what to do, if it should happen again, not just here but in other parts of the country. They learn that, they can just leave their home, stuff isn’t important. Family is important, community is important.”

The video is a STEM project that will include science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Rutkovskis had someone from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration come in to explain to her students what happened with the weather that led to them leaving their hometown in Chinook helicopters — how a tropical storm built in the Pacific Ocean near Mexico was pulled north by a low-pressure system, bringing monsoonal tropical moisture.

That storm pulled even more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and moved north in an unusual counterclockwise direction, hitting the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with an upslope flow. It hit another front moving south from Canada and stalled out on its rotation, rose up over the Front Range of Colorado and hit an elevation where the moisture in the air turned into rain, most of which fell in a 36-hour period between Sept. 11 and early in the morning of Sept. 13. It rained some 16-20 inches over Jamestown — the average annual rainfall — over just three days.

When the flood started in Jamestown, Paxton got the call at 4 a.m. that school was canceled. Then she headed out with her husband, chief of the Indian Peaks Fire Department, to put up road blocks to keep people from driving down the canyon because the roads were already gone.

The paraprofessional who works with Paxton and Rutkovskis, Beth Brotherton, was pulled from bed at midnight to set up the emergency shelter in the school.

“We probably had about 60 people in the school that night,” she says. “Everybody from the lower part of town that could get to the school, got to the school. And so we just did the best we could with what we had at that point, because the school was not set up as an evacuation center so there weren’t cots or anything.”

Brotherton is the principal’s assistant, secretary, nurse and special education paraprofessional for the Jamestown school. “I have a whole list of job descriptions, but that’s how it works in a small school,” she explains.

She started volunteering to teach art in Jamestown 15 years ago, when her children were in school there and the district stopped sending art, music and P.E. teachers to Jamestown Elementary and members of the community came forward to teach those to the kids.

“I enjoyed it so much … I just decided that if a job came available at Jamestown school — I wouldn’t want to be at just any school, I don’t think they’re all this nice — that I would take it,” she says with a laugh.

As the floodwaters were washing away the town, she was driving supplies through town in her Prius, until there was a hillside slide between her house and the school, and the car was trapped in mud. Moving over to her husband’s truck, she delivered food, clothes and dry socks — “People were wet,” she says — to those huddled in the Jamestown schoolhouse, even when she could hear the asphalt cracking underneath the truck’s tires. Meanwhile, the bridges to her own home at the north end of town washed out.

“There were so many great people that just stepped up to the plate,” she says. “People in town who knew how to filter water, they filtered water because we didn’t have water at that point, and people just cooked huge pots of food for us. Just amazing the way the community came together.”

By Sunday morning, most residents had been evacuated by the helicopter. She stayed until a swift water rescue team arrived to set up a Tyrolean traverse to get them out.

Her home, at the northeast end of Jamestown, wasn’t damaged (and she’d begged firefighters to stop by to give food and water to the pets they’d had to leave behind and lock up the house they’d left in such a hurry). When they could, as soon as they could, she and her family returned to their home, and lived without water, electricity or phones.

“It was like camping, but in a really nice house,” she says.

When parents of the Jamestown school’s children got word that the Brotherton family was still there and running low on provisions, they started to send coolers of food. Someone with an ATV delivered coolers of supplies, including a generator and gas.

She wasn’t at the meeting where the parents decided to have the school at the Bar-K Ranch, but when she got a call asking if she wanted to come back to school, she didn’t hesitate. She says, “I said, ‘Of course, I will be there — can somebody come and get me?’” The whole Front Range community surged in to help make it possible for Jamestown Elementary to keep going. Gold Hill held a bake sale to raise $2,300 for the school, and at Pioneer Elementary in Denver a schoolteacher had each of her children do something to earn $1, and then donated all of it, $234, to Jamestown Elementary.

“Everybody says how amazing it is when community comes together, but when you’re part of it… I mean you can hear it, hear people say it, but until you’re part of it, you don’t realize how phenomenal it can be, and how good it can feel,” Paxton says.

The City of Boulder recreation centers even offered free passes, whenever the kids want to come for a field trip. On a Friday just before winter break, the two halves of Jamestown Elementary reunited for the first time since Sept. 10 at the North Boulder Recreation Center. The entryway filled with the noise of them calling one another’s names and running to give hugs so tight one child picked the other up off the ground.

Recovery, yes, includes a lot of volunteer hands laboring at clearing the debris, but also moments like this, Rutkovskis says.

“I think it just takes time and healing and keep coming together like this,” she says.

The long-term picture is a little uncertain. Jamestown has suffered significant floods and rebuilt twice in the last hundred years, and every time seems to come back stronger. Tara Schoedinger, mayor of Jamestown, says they’re trying to rebuild smarter and more resilient development in the stream corridor.

“If anybody is an example of resiliency, it’s those teachers,” she says.

The building permit moratorium is expected to be lifted by the end of January, and the county has estimated road repairs will be done by the end of February — literally paving the way for rebuilding efforts. The Jamestown schoolhouse itself is fine, but the district won’t reopen it for classes until there’s a permanent fix to the washedout road. That construction may begin in early 2014.

Jamestown is facing a winter with just 10 percent of its usual population of about 300.

The superintendent has promised not to close the school next year, but there’s some concern that families could move.

“I think the town’s going to be different,” Rutkovskis says. “It’s not going to be the same — stronger, stronger community.”

She hopes to get the whole school together in the spring to plant trees, she says, in “a celebration of community and rebirth and healing in a place that needs it for erosion control.”

A potter from Jamestown recently visited her class, and the kids were tasked with rolling clay into balls, which represented the many rocks that came down during the floods and filled the streets. Those balls were then pressed onto a clay bowl that was eventually removed. On the outside, the round balls are still visible, representing the flood, but inside, it’s smooth, to represent healing.

“That’s how I see what we need to do together, you know, we need to go through this healing together,” Rutkovskis says. “It takes time to heal.”


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