Huerfano County, Colorado
Oral Interviews

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Frances Nelson

Scanned by Dick Chenault
Edited by Sherry Cook
Date of Interview - 9-26-1979

Elaine: What I noticed in the transcripts, in talking about the schools, is that at some point, people talk about their parents, their ancestors, bringing teachers from Mexico and teachers living in the home, and at some point that changed and a state-funded system started. So first of all, I want to know what you had heard about the early days, the method of selection of teachers and what was taught…

FN: Well, what my parents taught me, they had private teachers come to the house, you know they were just people in the community that knew how to read and write, not because they had any other type of education background, because something even the teachers themselves hadn't gone to school. They were often taught at home, you know, especially in the Spanish language. I know that the first teachers that my father used to tell us about came to the house and taught them Spanish. My mother never did learn to read or write Spanish, until after she married. She learned from my dad. She did say, she went to an English-speaking school in Las Animas County, so at the time that she was a young girl, they must have had schools. But, in the early, early days I heard people say that they had private schools in the home and that the family had to board the teacher, and I suppose pay her or him from their own funds, whatever kind they had, whether it was in currency or any type of money, or probably produce from the farm. Most of the people then were farmers. And later on, of course, from school records after I was in the office, I note there were schools supported by the local taxation and private schools also, the one-room school, the two-room schools.

Elaine: From what you can tell, people that had people in their homes to teach children, was it just their children because of the distance, or did other neighbor's children come? Did they share…

FN: I think the teacher probably went around to the homes, from home to home because my father said that his teacher, he said, “taught us Spanish”, and I know he wasn't talking about the other members of the family because they were all older than he was and they didn't have any schooling at all. So there must have been other people in the village and the little town that also had this teacher come in and do private tutoring. That's the way I believe it was, at least, I was told it was that way.

Elaine: When did the language change from Spanish to English in the schools?

FN: Well, I don't think Spanish was ever taught in the schools.

Elaine: So when Adam Maldonado talks about the books being in Spanish, that was private tutoring?

FN: It must have been private tutors, because it was against the law to teach any other language but the English language according to the Colorado school law, you know? And probably you've read in one of the histories where the teacher tried to keep the children from talking Spanish on the playground, you know. It seemed that everybody had to learn English. So, I remember that when I first started to teach school there was a parent in the school district that sent me some Spanish books that he wanted his children to learn from. I refused to do it because I told him I had to teach English in the school and that was the end of that, I heard no more about it. But, he did try. He did want his children to learn to read and write in Spanish. I could have done it if I had wanted to, because I knew how to read and write in Spanish, but I was afraid to do that. So I don't know just…I think this particular gentleman, he was considered wealthy, a wealthy sheep man, and he started a school in Gardner. He built the building and he brought, I think he…from the story I hear from the Gardner people, he brought some teachers from Mexico, but what the year was I don't know, it must have been in the 20's sometime. I don't know the exact date, 'cause I started teaching in 1923. So it was during that interval of years from '23 to probably as late as '29 probably, but it didn't last. It seems to me like the people at Gardner could tell you more about the school that Mr. Valdez started in Gardner. He built the building for the school. He brought the teachers because he didn't want the children to go, I suppose, to any English speaking school. He wanted them to learn Spanish. But it didn't last very long, as far as I know. But this was the type of individual that he was: He wanted them to learn, to be educated in Spanish.

Elaine: Was that the Turkey Creek…

FN: No, this man lived down in Cuchara. And that's where I first taught, down on the Cuchara, on Highway 10. And as I say, he was a wealthy sheep man, so he could afford to do this and he started a school in Gardner. How long it lasted I am not positive. It didn't last very long. And I don't know if he moved to Gardner, or not, because his farm was in Chuchara. He might have gone there for the winter or sent the wife and children to go to school. But from what I could learn they had teachers from Mexico. Ask the old timers in Gardner if they remember the schools that Mr. Valdez started out in Gardner.

Elaine: What were the requirements for teaching?

FN: At the time I started and even before I started teaching, examinations-teacher's examinations were given, and they were given by the County Superintendent, and the questions would come from the stat Department of Education. There were a few types of certificates you got at that time. It was first, second, and third grade certificates, as we called them. Speaking from experience, when I took the first teacher's examination, I wasn't quite 18. I had to be 18 to teach and I had to be 17 when I took the examination, so that meant that if I did pass the examination, I couldn't pass until I was 18. And, as I said, second and third grade. With a third grade certificate, you could teach nine months on that one. With a second grade you could teach, I think, 2 years without taking the examination again. With a first class or first grade certificate you could teach all the time. It was a sort of permanent certificate. I started teaching on a third grade certificate at first, for nine months and I took an examination. Examinations were held twice a year, as I remember, in the spring and fall of the year, and the first time that I took the teachers examination I wasn't old enough to teach, and I took another examination. By the way, examinations were in different subjects too. For third grade certificates you only had certain subjects, for second grade, certain subjects, and for first grade you had to take them all, including chemistry and physics, and all that. So when I started to teach, I started to teach in the second grade and through the years, going back and forth to school, to college, until I took the examination for the certificate, and I was set then, I could teach as long as I wanted, until I got my teaching degree.

Elaine: So that there was no strict educational requirement, there was competence.

FN: It was competence. Of course, I think those early teachers, I don't think there was a permit to teach. They just knew how to read and write and they taught the children what they knew. When they started to give teacher's examinations, I don't know, but it must have been, I wouldn't know, unless I looked in the records, if there are any records that showed that. That would probably have to come down from the State Department of Education, when they started giving state teacher's examinations.

Elaine: When you started teaching, what was the method of funding?

FN: Every school district, we had 55 school districts in the country, and there were first, second, and third class districts depending on the population. And I taught in the third class District of Huerfano County and …I forget the question…

Elaine: About the funding…

FN: Oh, yes. Ok, each district had its' property tax levy, and that why until the districts consolidated there was inequality of support for the schools because the poor school districts couldn't raise much money and the money that came from the state came for teacher's salaries, at that time. Of course, later on they changed the law so that it was based on attendance and based on population and different ways. But when I first started, the minimum teacher's salary was $75. Prior to that it was $60 and $40, whatever they wanted to pay, whatever the district could afford to pay. I guess, but when I started the minimum salary was $75.

Elaine: For how long?

FN: That was for a month. $675 a year. I'll never forget that, that I got $675 a year. That part came from the state, you know? It was called the general fund, the general fun of the state, and the special fund was for the school district. Naturally a little school district, a third class district, they didn't have much valuation, and they had to raise their taxes quite high in order to keep up the expenses of the school, you know. That was the reason we had reorganization, consolidation of the districts later on, because of the inequality of the districts to support education. Now, the district raises its' district levy it uses for school purposes, and of course, the state does a lot of the financing. Some funds come from the federal government for special programs, like special Ed, educational programs, that all comes from the federal government. It comes into the state and then the state apportions it. I guess they're still doing it that way.

Elaine: So the salaries were paid by the state, but each of the smaller districts had to pay for the upkeep of the building and books?

FN: Well, yes, as I said the minimum salary was guaranteed by the state, but for other expenses, like operating expenses, like fuel and books or janitorial services.

Elaine: Everything but salaries?

FN: Everything.

Elaine: So the citizens of the district would decide the levy?

FN: Yes. And they would in some way have to raise the taxes. At least when I was in the office in order to get a 5% increase in the taxation, we had to apply to the State Tax Commission. Cause teacher salaries kept going up, you know, and other expenses kept going up and…

FN: We were talking about levies and how they raised their levies and why they had to have increases in levies.

Elaine: Were there the kinds of discussions that go on now between people who feel more should be spent on education or less or was there more agreement?

FN: Well, I think most of the responsibility was on the shoulders of the school board. Every school district elected its' own board, a president, secretary, and treasurer and when budget time came or when they had to decide that expenses they wanted this year. I suppose that their little school district election came in May, sometimes the district school board elections were harder elections than Presidential elections. People really took an interest in their own little school district elections for secretary, president, treasurer, whatever it was. I don't they had too many public meetings, except on Election Day when the people came to vote. In rural districts I think they didn't have the opportunity of meeting and discussing school problems. I think though the parents and teachers had a closer relationship than they have now. The parents would come to the school and discuss school problems and differences between the parents and the teachers and if it got too serious it went to the school board.

Elaine: Who had the decision about hiring the teachers? Was this the school board?

FN: It was the school board that hired the teachers on the recommendation of the County superintendent. The County Superintendent would check on their credentials, make sure they had the right certification and so forth. The local people couldn't fill the positions. There weren't enough people to fill positions, so board members would try to get applications form out of state. They had a lot of teachers from Kansas, teaching in the rural schools, and from Missouri, and Nebraska. Until later years, and later years many of the local people began to be qualified and certified to teach, so we had a lot of local people.

Elaine: Was there a lot of support for the teachers, or did the teachers have the feeling that if they didn't perform well, they would be fired or was it a very secure position?

FN: I just depended on the personality of the teacher. Sometimes some teachers just stayed one year, sometimes they stayed two or three and four years, in a school district because the people like the teacher. And as I say, the relationship between parents and teachers was very close, in the rural areas anyway. I am speaking mostly of the experience I had in the rural areas. But sometimes teachers were not satisfactory for one reason or another, I don't know, if it was their teaching method or they didn't get along with someone in the district or they just didn't produce, I guess, but we had very many five year old teachers in the area.

Elaine: Was there much opportunity for teachers to communicate with each other?

FN: Well, all the little third class districts were just districts of their own, and there wasn't much opportunity except when you had teacher conventions and teacher meetings in Walsenburg, and the County Superintendent usually called county teachers meetings in the fall. Then they had the …what they called the CEA, Colorado Education Association Convention Course. Then they mixed people from throughout the state to teachers conventions, but to county conventions people come in. When I was in the office I was a need for the small rural teachers to meet more often than they would at a county convention once a year, and well, we had county spelling contests, and Young Citizen's League, which was a league of the children in the schools, and we had the YCL conventions, and the teachers would have a chance to meet. But in the Gardner area I decided it was necessary for teachers to meet more often to discuss methods and to discuss things pertaining to their position and be well acquainted with the school laws and things of that nature, so the boards in Gardner area allowed me to have the teachers come in once a month for little meetings at the Gardner school, which was the most central point for the teachers in that area. And the teachers, about 5 or 6 of them came from the surrounding areas, and we have tea along with little discussions, and I would bring up teaching methods and pass out monthly bulletins that would bring information to those teachers, talk to them abut coming events, talk to them about country conventions that would be coming up, or YCL conventions that would be coming up.

Elaine: What would you say was your most valuable contribution?

FN: My most valuable contribution was to school board members in the rural areas, because I helped them with their budgets at budget making time. I helped them also select they type of teachers I thought they should have, although it wasn't my final decision who they would hire, it was up to the board to interview the teachers. Sometimes the teacher would come to the office and the board would meet in the office. But I think the most valuable contribution was to the school board, in helping them with their budgets and matters related to their school districts. I think the reason was because I was Spanish speaking and most of the directors were Spanish people. And they liked to converse with me and talk about their matters in Spanish where they surely would understand what was going on.

Elaine: Was there competition between school districts or did they work together?

FN: there was competition in contests you know, in spelling contests; there were a lot of contests. As a matter of fact, we were champions, you know, in the state conventions, and several of our children, I can't remember all their names, won the state spelling contest. I think there was a lot of concentration and emphasis on spelling. At least I thought so. And spelling contests were quite the event for all the rural areas. Course, as I say, I should probably say that my greatest contribution was to school board members, I also helped the teachers out in many ways. We had filmstrips in the days when the children didn't get to see many movies or things like that. We'd take out film strips to help get something across and they'd enjoy it very much. They looked forward to my coming all the time and I looked forward to going. It seemed like I knew every child in the county, which I don't anymore. But they remember me if they're living, and I meet them even if I'm in Pueblo or Denver or anywhere. And “Oh, I went to such and such a school and you were the county superintendent and I have certificates for perfect attendance from you, signed with your name and I have spelling certificates and I took part in the Young Citizens League and we went to the sate legislature” And all those kinds of things. To belong to the Young Citizens League you had to learn to recite, to learn patriotic documents of different kinds, like…oh, the Gettysburg Address. You don't find that many of them that do that now days. That's one of the things I remember and I cherish, that we taught them to be good citizens, to conduct meetings. They learned parliamentary procedure in the Young Citizens League. And when we had the convention in Denver, we usually had a busload of children to go.

Elaine: When did this stop?

FN: Well, it stopped when the office went out, when the district become part of the larger district. Walsenburg became part of the RE-1 District. Before that time we had 55 school districts in the county. Can you imagine 55 schools? Well, not 55 schools all at one time, because some of the districts would consolidate and unite with another district and at the time of reorganization in the '40's why they became part of the School District RE-1 and la Veta become School District RE-2 and those are the districts we have now. But at the time I was in office, we had 55 school districts.

Elaine: What would you say was the biggest change that reorganization made?

FN: Well, I think that it equalized education from the standpoint that every child had the same opportunity for an education that he or she didn't have at first. Although we are hearing so much now about how the one room schools, I hear it now from former school board members, that they thought that children got a better education, the opportunity for a better education. The opportunities weren't as great, I don't think, because they didn't have money to put up a library and things like that. I had a county library in my office and I would take out the books to the schools than at that time. My teachers would come and check out whatever books they wanted. We didn't have opportunities for the music and athletics that they have now. Yet I know some board members always said, “Well, my children, my younger children, were educated in a rural school and those in a lower grade learned from what the older children were doing, because everything took place in the classroom in a one room school.” But financially, I think some of them didn't have the opportunity to have the things all these children do on a first class basis. They couldn't afford them.

Elaine: In terms of the life of the community, what would you say were the changes? I see at Gardner, the school is the focus of community life. The largest events are always at the school, either school programs or school board meetings, and nothing else has the same cohesive feeling.

FN: In visiting the people, through the years in the office, I learned to know so many people through the contacts of the children and through the activities that took place in the school house. So…but, talking to some of the teachers today now, they don't have that cooperation from the parents that we had in those days. If we had a school program, the parents volunteered to make all the costuming and things of that sort. Of course, we didn't have the expensive things they don't go into that as extensively as we did in those days. And the Christmas program at the school that was a big event in the life of the community. The end of the school program was a big event in the life of the community. People way, “We miss the programs.” That's been reduced to having programs at Christmas and having programs at the end of school. Having some type of little program at Lincoln's Birthday or Washington's Birthday, those things we don't have too much nowadays. At least… not to my knowledge.

Elaine: It was the responsibility of the teacher?

FN: It was the responsibility of the teachers to put on the program. And everybody came. There were interested in their children and they wanted this program. They enjoyed the, and the children performing and learning to speak in public. I think that was a great thing for the parents. They enjoyed having their children do these things.

Elaine: I think it is coming back a little bit.

FN: I think it is. I think is coming back more. The parents become involved. The parents never came, at least to the school unless there was something like that going on. And for our Christmas program, everybody turned out, because that was the enjoyment of the parents and the children too.

Elaine: When did the change come, when Spanish was allowed back in the schools? How recent is that?

FN: Well, since the state has allowed money for bi-lingual programs. That wasn't allowed before. I guess the bi-lingual has been going on now for 5 or 6 years. But until then, you see, there have been some changes.

Elaine: Who made the fires in the morning and …

FN: for a long time in the small districts the teacher had to build a fire and do all the janitorial work. As soon as the district got a little money, why they usually hired someone to do that and hired a janitor. But in the early days the teacher had to do all that. She even had hot lunches for the children. She had hot soup and things like that on the potbelly stove, warming up a meal for the children. Then all of a sudden when the government stepped into the hot lunch program and even some of the rural schools did had hot lunches at that time, the little schools did you know. I know at North Veta, they sectioned off a part of the school, and my sister Anna…That must have been part of the WPA program, though, where they were getting hot lunches to children. I'm not too certain of that, but I think that's what it was. It wasn't a hot lunch program to the state, it was the WPA. The men working on WPA and the families were poor and children needed hot lunches, and I think the county must have had something to do with it. Well, the county…the WPA was under the supervision of the county commissioners, so I guess the county commissioners allowed the several of the schools to put up hot lunches and they paid the cooks.

Elaine: Before that happened did the teacher have to make the soup?

FN: Well, I think it kind of depended on whether the teacher wanted to do it or not. If she wanted to heat up soup for the children she did, she would you know. I never did because in the schools I taught in, why, when we had…

(End of transcript)

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