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BASIN - On a recent brisk morning on the playground at the Basin School, older students helped younger ones zip up their coats, while another group of students waited nearby to begin a game of "Chicken and Fox."

"We aren't going to start without you," one student yelled.

These 14 students spend every recess together. They each lunch together and go on field trips together.

They know where each other lives, what they typically bring in their lunchbox and how to push each other's buttons. It's like a large family for this group of students and their two teachers.

Despite the lowered enrollment in recent years, educators in Basin are hoping this family-like feel will continue to draw in kindergarteners through sixth-graders and prevent a decrease in teaching staff.

According to Tammy Urich, or "Ms. U" to the students, the average number of students during her 18 years at the school has been 24. Since school funding is based on the number of students, 14 students means less money for the operating budget.

"The board talked about if there becomes 10 or less reducing to one teacher, so we are really worried," Urich said.

The environment isn't for everyone, and Urich said it either clicks or it doesn't for both families and teachers.

Some students who live in Basin attend school in Boulder, the bigger community to the southeast, while some students travel to Basin from Boulder to attend school.

Eleven-year-old Meagan Graber moved to this former mining community with her family when she was in the second grade.

"I love Basin," Graber said. "I like that you know all the kids and are friends with all of them - it makes it easier to get along."

Urich, a Butte native, teaches kindergarten through third grade, but she's also the principal, the librarian and the janitor. Harmony Ellwein, or "Ms. E," is a 1998 Capital High School graduate and the fourth- through sixth-grade teacher, but she's also is the music, physical education and computer teacher for the all students.

One recent school day, the kindergarteners worked on rhyming words and counting, the third-graders worked on a spelling or health assignments, while the lone first-grader worked on phonics.

It looked similar in the older students' classroom, where a few students had math books out while others were using dictionaries for a writing assignment.

Saraliba Auch, the first-grader, said math is the best part of the day.

"I'm good at it, but sometimes I get answers wrong," the smiling blonde said.

Auch, who lives in Boulder, says she enjoys attending school with her two older siblings.

"I like talking to them here, but sometimes at home they drive me crazy, but not at school," she said.

Ellwein said she never pictured herself teaching in a small school, but it just happened that way, and she's glad about that.

"There's so much you can do that's hands-on for the students, and (teachers) are so close to the decision-making process because they are so close to the school," she said. "If you want to do something or change something, it's easy to make that happen."

She admits however that organizing lessons can be challenging because she's juggling so many grades. When Ellwein makes a lesson plan for math, she prepares three; the same is true for the other subjects, too.

"It can be tough to get to all of it, so the kids have to do a lot independently, but for the most part I think it makes them better, stronger students," she said.

There's no hot-lunch program other than a two microwaves for students or teacher to warm up food from home. Some students walk home to eat.

Because there's not a mass of students, the schedule can be flexible, Ulrich says.

There are 30 minutes scheduled for lunch, but if everyone brings a microwavable lunch, which seems to happen in the dead of winter, it may take longer.

Physical education is always outside since there's no gym. Upstairs in the computer lab, which is also the music room, there's a closet full of toys and games for when temperatures get 10 to 15 degrees below zero and recess must be held indoors.

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"Winters can be brutal with no gym," Ulrich said.

Improvements have been steadily made to the building through the years. There's no longer an outhouse since indoor plumbing was installed. The coal furnace has been replaced as well as the windows, but not everything can be upgraded without a truckload of money. The swing set on the playground is from 1938.

There are three Basin School Board members who meet once a month. Micki LeTexier is one of the trustees. She's a former student of Basin School, and she sent her three children there.

LeTexier says this school is the one place where there's no socio-economic lines drawn.

Everyone just takes care of each other," she said. "I can remember one family that didn't have anything, and we did all we could to make sure they did. It has a much better community feel that we get in society today."

The school, LeTexier says, is the hub of the community.

"It's the one place where everybody comes together for the right reasons," she said. "There's not controversy because everybody supports the school. It's a community icon and truly helps our town because not very many people want to move to town where there's no school."

LeTexier is realistic however, about what the future may hold if the decrease in enrollment continues.

"We are tying to keep the school open, but we do realize that in the near future that might not be an option," she said. "We are planning for the future, though, and hoping for the best."

Having the sounds of children laughing on the playground and the ringing of the school bell help the cohesiveness of the small community, LeTexier says.

"Children are still the basic innocent foundation we all believe in - when you lose it, you lose that innocence and that hope," she said. "Children are always the hope that the future will be better."

Rhandi Rachlis loves spending time with the school children.

On this day, she walked by during recess and said hello to the teachers and the children. She was on her way to the fire hall to display a photo of all the children with the local fire truck.

Rachlis, 73, reads to students twice a week at the school through Rocky Mountain Development Council's Foster Grandparent Program.

"These kids are like a family with each other," she said. "They get wonderful individualized attention, the teachers know the community, and all that gives them a learning advantage. They care about each other and the teachers, and it's mutual. There's a quality of respect that's fostered there, and I think it's really powerful."

Janice Hahn of Butte taught in New Hampshire and Vermont before moving to Montana and teaching at the school for 15 years.

She say's there is a big difference between the schools back East and in Basin.

"I liked having the same kids year after year," she said. "It gives them continuity of what you do with them, and it's sort of a family affair."

Hahn said the social structure there is good because the students have to be with people who aren't their age all day and that helps them develop patience.

Recently, Hahn attended the 115th anniversary celebration of the school and was amazed at how many people attended.

"They filled that hall," she said. "It was a great time to socialize and visit with folks."

Urich agreed.

"It was great to hear about what the school and Basin was like (years ago)," she said.

While some esthetics of the building have changed through the years, Urich notes, the feel inside is still like one big family, and she hopes that continues to draw in students.

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or lana.listoe@helenair.com.

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