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A classy bunch: Superintendent Scot Kelley with the Penelope Independent School District’s entire seventh-grade class in Penelope, Texas.
Melody Kelley
Admittedly, I happily thought I’d met my high-school foreign-language requirement by finally passing Algebra I, so I’m hardly the ideal spokesman to address today’s troubling state of our children’s education.

Still, it doesn’t require dazzling insight or a celestial IQ to know that our nation’s public schools are in turmoil. Just read the papers: budget woes, testing problems, overburdened and underpaid teachers, discipline run amok and crammed classrooms. The three R’s have lost the battle to standardized tests. And don’t even get me started on this new philosophy that no child should ever fail, lest he or she suffer irreparable emotional damage.

All of which leads to the thundering question of what we’re to do.

Perhaps it might be time well spent for the ?academic big thinkers to pay a visit to Central Texas? and the tiny office of superintendent Scot Kelley, 46, who, for the past five years, has watched over the Penelope Independent School District and its 175 pre-K through 12th-grade students. Pardon the nostalgia, but his is the kind of workable school system I remember.

Though it ranks as one of the poorest districts in the far-spread Texas system, with only minimal property-tax revenue to draw from, the Penelope ISD appears to be managing quite well. Kids are learning from the 22 classroom teachers; they graduate, and some go on to college. A few even return. Audra Osborne, former homecoming queen and a high achiever, recently earned her degree at Texas Tech University before moving back to her hometown (population: 200) to teach English.

 The majority of her students are lifelong residents and arrive from farms and ranches spread across the 55-square-mile school district. Others arrived more recently, enrolled by parents who, having grown weary of inner-city social and educational shortcomings, made the move to the sanity and simple pleasures of small-town life. The enrollment is diverse and the curriculum on par with that of far-larger schools.

The greatest difference is the student-teacher ratio. “We may have a physics class with just five students,” Kelley notes. “Whatever the subject, there is a great deal of one-on-one teaching going on. Nobody gets lost in the shuffle. Our teachers know every child in school and what each individual’s needs are.”

If there is a course that a student wants to take which isn’t available at Penelope High School, arrangements are in place for live interactive video instruction from nearby Hill College.
“Here,” Kelley says, “it is our job to look beyond what we might not have and find ways to make things happen.” Despite the fact that the school has no stage on which to practice, its one-act-play participants have won championships. So have its six-man football team and members of its Future Farmers of America. Annually, students fare well in academic competitions. Never mind that there’s no tennis court in Penelope — the school’s tennis coach drives the team to nearby Waco for after-school practice.

Welcome to education in the hinterland, where a stubborn make-do approach is the order of every day.

If the trend holds, of the 15 seniors in this year’s class, a third of them will seek higher learning. “There was a time when a number of our kids didn’t really know how to get into college,” Kelley points out. “Now we help them every step of the way. We make sure they’ve taken all the required subjects, help them fill out applications, and our teachers often donate their time to drive them to visit nearby college campuses.”

For the superintendent and his teachers, education is far more than a morning-bell-to-?afternoon-dismissal proposition.

When the school day ends, Kelley switches from his role of administrator to tutor. Some who have come to him for help were former students who, for whatever reason, had failed to earn their diploma.

In one case, he recalls, a 24-year-old hadn’t passed the assessment test in his senior year and, with a young daughter about to enroll in pre-K, wanted to be able to tell her he was a high school graduate. For six months, Kelley worked with him. When he finally passed the test last summer, it was Kelley who gave the proud young father his diploma.

“That,” says Kelley, “was something very special to me.”