As Valley Schools Shut Down Indefinitely, Many Rural Schools Stay Open Despite Teacher Strike

As Valley Schools Shut Down Indefinitely, Many Rural Schools Stay Open Despite Teacher Strike (2)
Antonia Farzan
As another day of protests at the Arizona Capitol wrapped up on Monday, school districts in metro Phoenix began notifying parents they'd be closed yet again on Tuesday — or perhaps indefinitely. Schools in the Tucson area followed suit. And parents began wondering when it all would end.

But across rural Arizona, it was just another normal school day.

Though you wouldn't know it from the news coverage, or the size of the crowds that descended on the Capitol on Thursday, some Arizona schools have yet to close as a result of the teacher walkouts. Most of them are located in smaller, more geographically isolated communities: Duncan and Morenci in Greenlee County, Parker in La Paz County, Dateland in Yuma County.

In Colorado City, which borders Utah and is best known for its association with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, schools have stuck to their normal schedules and been unaffected by the statewide strike, a receptionist for the district confirmed.

In Safford, where mining and agriculture still dominate the local economy, most schools were open as usual, though some in the Pima Unified district let students go home early. Teachers on Thursday held a car wash to benefit a student who'd been injured in an ATV accident, and a "grade-in" at the Subway inside a local Wal-Mart.

Despite a growing "Rez For Ed" movement, schools on Native American reservations have also stayed open. In some cases, teachers don't have anything to gain by lobbying the state Legislature, because their funding comes from the federal government. The federal Bureau of Indian Education is in charge of more than 50 schools in Arizona, including Tohono O'odham High School in Sells and boarding schools in Kayenta and Tuba City.

But other districts that do fall under the state's purview, like Chinle on the Navajo Nation and Whiteriver on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, have been keeping their doors open, too.

"I’m one of the higher-paid people on the reservation," a teacher on the San Carlos Apache Reservation explained to Phoenix New Times last week. "To many of my students' parents, I’d be looked at as greedy if we closed the school down saying that we need to get more pay.”

Other rural schools that had closed for a day or two of walkouts decided to reopen this week. On Monday, schools in the old mining towns of Globe and Miami were back in session. So were schools in the Mogollon Rim communities of Payson, Show Low, and Pinetop-Lakeside. Up north by the Utah border, teachers with the Page Unified School District had returned to their classrooms. The old railroad town of Benson (population: 5,105) went back to school on Monday. So did the conservative ranching community of Wickenburg, one of the few towns in Maricopa County to hold classes yesterday. 

"We are anticipating that some teachers and other staff will call in sick," Chino Valley Unified School District superintendent John Scholl wrote in a message to parents, announcing plans to reopen on Monday. "However, district administration is confident that with a majority of teachers coming to school along with substitutes we can safely provide meaningful instruction to students at school that day."

Many rural districts operate on a four-day schedule in order to save money on transportation and utility costs, allowing educators and support staff to travel to the Capitol on Friday — or Monday, in the case of a few districts like Gila Bend and Yarnell.

Others found creative ways to stay open. In Lake Havasu City, administrators and school board members stepped in to substitute for teachers who were absent on Thursday, Amy Barney, an algebra teacher at the local high school, told New Times.

Since Lake Havasu recently passed a large bond override, she explained, she and other teachers hadn't wanted to shut down the schools, fearing that they'd seem ungrateful.

"We promised would go after the state, to get sustainable funding," she said. "We don’t want to put more of the burden on our community."

Concerns like hers are common. As we reported last week, some teachers in isolated areas and small towns worry about creating a rift between the school and the community. Others fear having to move or change jobs if their teaching certificates are revoked.

Rural schools also frequently rely on teachers from overseas, who could potentially lose their visas if they're fired.

And despite expressing support for the Red for Ed movement, rural teachers told New Times that their communities don't have the same resources and infrastructure as metro Phoenix and Tucson, where recreational centers and social service agencies have stepped up to ensure that students get fed and have a safe place to spend the day.

That's not to say that the ongoing teacher strike is limited exclusively to greater Tucson and Phoenix. Among the closures announced for Tuesday morning were schools in Florence, Yuma, Kingman, Sierra Vista, Nogales, and Winslow.

But if some legislators seem less than rushed to come to an agreement with Arizona Educators United, that might just be because parents in their district aren't feeling the pressure yet.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.