In the tiny town of Carbonado — the last outpost on the road to the Carbon River entrance of Mount Rainier National Park — traditions are a way of life.
The start of the new school year Wednesday was just one example.
While the school bell won’t ring until next week for most Pierce County public schools, school in Carbonado traditionally starts a few days before Labor Day.
Scott Hubbard is both principal and superintendent in the county’s smallest school district, with just one school for students in kindergarten through grade eight. Hubbard said his teachers like helping students gently transition from summer play to fall studies.
But on Wednesday morning, sixth-grader Kayla Fairley was ready for summer vacation to end. She was the first student in line, arriving more than a half hour before the doors opened shortly after 8 a.m.
Why so early? Kayla said she was hoping to make new friends, and renew friendships with kids she hadn’t seen all summer.
“It will be fun seeing everybody again,” she said.
Of the 183 students at Carbonado this year, about 70 come from outside the community. Most are from nearby school districts, including Orting, White River and Enumclaw. But over the years, students have come from as far as Puyallup and Federal Way. There’s a waiting list for out-of-towners.
“They want that small-school experience,” Hubbard said.
At the heart of the Carbonado campus is a historic red brick school, built in 1929. A separate gymnasium, named for longtime teacher Don Argo, dates from 1936. And there are several newer modular buildings that provide the bulk of classroom space.
The school district traces its roots to 1878, when early schools were built on the site.
New this year is a playground redesigned for student safety, as well as a bank of new Macintosh computers in the school lab.
Carbonado School is small enough that Hubbard knows nearly every student. With more than 20 years in Carbonado as both a teacher and administrator, he’s taught some of their parents. His grandkids are now Carbonado students.
At an opening assembly, Hubbard introduced every teacher and staff member, as well as every new student, to the entire school.
Riyan Snyder was one of the new faces.
“I’m always nervous until I get to know people,” the smiling eighth-grader said.
Her dad, Ross, said he moved to Carbonado because of the school.
“Everybody in town says it’s awesome,” he said.
Other kids, like first-grader Makenzie Balsley, are carrying on a family tradition. She’s the third generation in her family attending Carbonado School.
Penny Frame, who has taught in Carbonado for 16 years, has her own tradition. She likes to kick off the school year with a theme for her eighth graders, who will spend their last year in Carbonado before heading off to high school in neighboring school districts. This year, Frame’s theme is “Saddle Up for Eighth Grade.”
Inside her classroom is a floor-to-ceiling archway in the shape of cowboy boots. She filled goody bags with cowboy-themed jewelry, bandanas and sheriff’s badges. She’ll be rotating the title of “Deputy of the Week” around the class.
“Eighth-graders still like to be kids,” she said. But her goal is to have them “saddle up” for the new challenges that will await them next year.
School board member Laurie McNabb believes the small school prepares Carbonado kids for whatever choices they’ll make in the future. Two of her children have already graduated from Carbonado and now attend Enumclaw High School. Her fifth-grader and seventh-grader are still at Carbonado.
McNabb believes one of the best traditions is the K-8 grade configuration. The oldest students serve as role models for the younger kids, she said. And they have the time they need to grow and develop.
“They don’t have to be adults before they’re ready,” she said.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635