Despite Hardships and Isolation, a School in California's Big Sur Offers Its Rural Students a New World

updated 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Avalanches of rock and mud pour down the coastal mountains that loom above central California's monumental Big Sur country. Snaking along the mean, corrugated road, a yellow school bus carries 10 children home from the Pacific Valley School. Fore and aft are huge highway plows, the first clearing debris, the second as backup. Soon after the bus trundles through a particularly treacherous stretch, a wall of sludge crashes into the road. Once in the clear, bus driver Gale Novoa, known on the local citizens band radio network as Shady Lady, notifies listeners that all aboard are safe. "I was almost in tears straining to hear," says Eugenia Pawlick, who with her husband, Joseph, runs the school. "You can imagine the jubilation in this community when Shady Lady radioed that they were clear."

Mudslides are but one of the obstacles that folks in this remote forestland have to contend with when they send their 43 children to the area's only public school. The district, spanning 34 miles, encompasses mountain enclaves so widely dispersed that some kids ride by car pool for 40 minutes just to reach the nearest bus stop. The children don't seem to mind the struggle that goes with getting an education because their parents endure the same sort of rugged existence and because the school itself has become the most compelling activity in their lives.

The parents are a flinty lot—ranchers, miners and foresters, intermixed with an assortment of aging hippies, Vietnam-era dropouts, wealthy recluses and others who would rather make do in a cabin than a condo. They give their children names like Unique, Celestial, Sequoia and Moonbeam, as well as Sarah, Brian and Bill.

The school itself is a two-room affair operated by the Pawlicks, who are teachers, principals and superintendents all at the same time. Genie, 40, teaches music, art and creative writing to the upper grades along with the basic curriculum for kids age 5 to 9. Joseph, 36, instructs the older children, up to age 14, after which they graduate to high schools even farther from their homes.

It is hard to imagine that Pacific Valley was once an educational disaster area. Conflicting values between the original settlers and the hippies and other dropouts who drifted into the district during the '60s put the 139 voters at odds over schooling. Over a dozen years 10 teachers arrived in hope and fled in despair; it got so bad that few parents bothered to send their kids to school. Then, in 1983, the families got together and agreed to cooperate. "Maybe raising children of their own finally turned the hippies around," says Phyllis Sanderson, a longtime resident.

Once hired, the Pawlicks discovered that isolation and the absence of modern amenities had left many of the children unsocialized. Some couldn't speak English properly. Moreover, says Joseph, "We had to teach things as basic as throwing used paper towels in a wastebasket instead of on the floor." Located in the Big Sur wilderness 180 miles south of San Francisco and 25 miles from the nearest power line, the school, like many of the homes, lacked indoor plumbing, electricity and reliable telephone service. "Compared to city children, who grow up watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company, our kids came to school less prepared," Joseph says.

Like most efforts in these remote mountains, getting on the right road was a long haul. First off, the Pawlicks set out to scrounge government money. The state paid $239,000 to add a second room with a small kitchen. Another $49,000 grant went for electricity, provided by a solar power system. After that came an eight-foot TV satellite dish, a number of CB radios and a weather forecasting computer. The students benefited from each innovation, assembling the satellite dish and weather computer as science projects. They learned language skills by broadcasting daily weather reports and radio plays over the local CB network. Nowadays, when pupils need help with homework, they simply radio the night owl Joseph ("Redeye") or the ever-singing Genie ("Songbird"). With television the children are now discovering the world beyond Pacific Valley. Watching news coverage of South African riots one day, says Joseph, "one sixth grader came right off her seat screaming, 'Why are they hitting those people?' But the children have been touched in a positive way too, by Baby Fae and countless other stories. If it were not for television, they'd never have been standing around the piano holding hands, singing We Are the World" Because TV viewing is restricted to school hours, the kids benefit in other ways. "My class actually asks for more homework," Genie says. "They don't have much else to do in the evening."

Students love Joseph for his sense of humor. Genie gets respect for being a fair disciplinarian. But both are flexible enough to fit the school's rustic setting into their lesson plans. The children are free to bring in their bats, tarantulas, snakes and other urban-shy critters, and hardly anyone squirms. "We're used to it because we live in the country," explains Ezra, 8, a third grader. One of the most popular projects so far has been planting and cultivating a vegetable garden that yields fresh produce for school lunches.

The payoff on this reawakening has been swift. Students now "tend to score in all subjects at least two grade levels above the standards for their age," says Joseph. Evaluating the Pawlicks' kids, state educator Tony Thornburg reported, "Given the circumstances of location and isolation, I would have considered them exceptional if they'd just scored in the normal range."

The Pawlicks have marked up high scores as well. Both Joseph, who is from Bayonne, N.J., and Genie, a native of Pasadena, earned master's degrees in education at the University of Southern California. They met while teaching in Pasadena's public schools and got married in 1976. Both were approaching burnout when they heard that Pacific Valley needed a couple of brave teachers, so they decided it was time to move. For Joseph, "the bottom line is that this is a beautiful place to be. The road can fall into the ocean and I still love it here—the beauty, the remoteness and the kids." For sure, the kids. "When they misbehave," says Genie proudly, "their punishment is not to come to school the next day."

From Our Partners