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Terlingua High

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Bordering the Future

The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. The sky was filled with stars and as black as can be. There was just enough time to pack a lunch and head for school, nearly 100 miles away and a two-hour ride in each direction.

You had to really want to go to high school if you lived in Lajitas. The bus stop was in Study Butte, 17 miles east over a two-lane road that rollercoasters near the Rio Grande. From there, the 6 a.m. bus headed north on Texas Highway 118 to Alpine High School, another 85 miles. It was like living in Dallas and going to school in Waco.

"The bus route from Study Butte to Alpine is the longest school bus route in the entire U.S.," Newsweek reported in 1994.

Some 22 high school students watched the sun come up over the Santiago Mountains to the east each morning as their bus climbed more than 2,300 feet through the desert landscape to Alpine, at an elevation of 4,481 feet.

After school, they didn't have the luxury of attending meetings of the Latin Club, participating in the school choir, or practicing with the football team. Instead, they counted the Brewster County landmarks on the way home--Double Diamond Ranch, Cathedral Mountain, Calamity Creek Wash, Butcherknife Hill, Nine Point Mesa, Fizzle Flat, Camel's Hump--before cutting through the Christmas Mountains back to the Study Butte bus stop by 6 p.m. Then, another slow drive along Ranch Road 170 to Lajitas.

Most kids just quit.

The 701-square-mile Terlingua Independent School District didn't have the tax base to build a high school. Neither Big Bend Ranch State Park to the west nor Big Bend National Park to the east paid local property taxes.

Students had the option of going to school in Terlingua until the 8th grade or, if their parents worked in the national park, attending San Vicente Elementary near the park's headquarters. But neither Terlingua ISD nor San Vicente ISD (1,596 square miles) had a high school. When their students reached the 9th grade, the districts faced the prospect of paying $1,200 per student to send them north to Alpine five days a week.

Some families found the trip too daunting and made arrangements for one parent to rent an apartment in Alpine for the school year, coming home with their high schoolers on weekends. Others sent their teenagers to live with relatives in Fort Stockton, Van Horn, or Odessa.

Many families just gave up. And many students just left school after the 8th grade.

But no more. In August 1997, Terlingua High School opened its brand-new doors--thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of local residents who appealed to the largesse of foundations and corporations interested in making sure children in the farthest reaches of Texas receive a high school education.

Residents raffled handmade quilts and sponsored barbecues, but they knew they needed to raise funds from outside donors. In 1995, they created a non-profit group called the Big Bend Education Corporation, and wisely put it under the direction of the Reverend Judith Burgess, who had recently moved with her husband to Terlingua from Virginia.

Rev. Burgess, who spent part of her childhood in Abilene, wrote to friends back in Virginia and encouraged them to be generous with their contributions. They were.

Then she put together a series of grant proposals for Texas foundations and corporations. They were generous, too.

The Meadows Foundation of Dallas gave $174,500. The Houston Endowment added another $100,000. The Potts and Sibley Foundation chipped in $10,000. Smith Barney donated another $7,500. An anonymous donor gave $75,000, and a woman in California wrote a check for $50,000. Others gave what they could, some as little as $5. It all added up to some $600,000, including a couple of loans taken out by the Terlingua and San Vicente school districts.

Most of the teachers and administrators have been drawn from the extended local community, and the high school is now one of the largest employers in Big Bend.

An architect from San Angelo has sketched plans for a cafeteria, gymnasium, and library to be built as soon as more money is rounded up. Meanwhile, students bring their lunches from home and eat in whatever shade they can find outside the school, where the thermometer routinely reads 100 degrees. After-school sports are played on a white limestone field that blinds the eyes in the afternoon sun. A golf course in Lajitas, built to accommodate winter tourists, is available to the school's golf team during off-hours.

In an area where more than 80 percent of the children speak Spanish, with extended families living on both sides of the border--three-quarters of them in substandard housing--only about one-quarter of their parents have high school diplomas.

But now, rather than leaving school in the 9th grade--the most common year for dropping out--these Texas students are coming back. Fifty-one enrolled for the school's debut semester in August 1997, more than twice the number who used to ride the bus to Alpine.

"The children are enthusiastic," says Superintendent Kathy Killingsworth. "They now have a place, and they have a lot of pride in their community.

"It took everyone working together. It was a long, hard fight, but we finally got it done."

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Bordering the Future