Rural Clayton, its schools offer parents peace of mind

September 27, 1992|By Arnold Hamilton | Arnold Hamilton,Dallas Morning News

CLAYTON, N.M. -- From the moment their children left for school each day until the time they returned home, Anthony Giraitis said he and his wife, Shirley, worried.

They worried about the influence of gangs in the Albuquerque, N.M., schools. They worried about drive-by shootings. They worried that their girls might be assaulted.

Then, this summer, Mr. Giraitis (pronounced Gratis) had a revelation of sorts. It came in the form of a newspaper advertisement beckoning transfer students to the northeastern New Mexico farm and ranch town of Clayton.

Mr. Giraitis drove up, checked out the schools, walked around the outside of a house, bought it and moved his entire family -- all on the promise that Clayton would offer a wholesome throwback to the days when kids could just be kids.

"This may have been the wisest thing I've ever done," said Mr. Giraitis, 33, a licensed practical nurse. "We couldn't have been more delighted with the way it's worked out."

The Giraitises are not alone. Other families, though not moving themselves, are sending their high school-age children to Clayton as part of a novel campaign to stem declining enrollment and preserve the centerpiece of the 2,400-resident town.

School Superintendent Claude Austin said Clayton began advertising for transfer students about July 1 in New Mexico's major papers, offering students the opportunity to be more than just a number and their parents peace of mind.

He said the district projected that it would open the academic year with about 726 students, only five more than last year. Instead, 760 students are enrolled, about 10 of whom are believed attributable to the transfer campaign.

With the Chamber of Commerce and the superintendent's office still sending information packets to interested parents and students on a regular basis -- some to places as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia, and South Carolina -- it may be another year or two before the full impact of Clayton's efforts is realized, Mr. Austin said.

"It's just beginning," he said. "It's looking like a good way to build economic development for the whole area, using the school district as a way of luring people to this area."

Securing the long-term future of the school district is important, Clayton officials said, not only because it is the town's largest employer, but also because Clayton's identity, like most rural communities, is built on its schools.

The transfer campaign is designed primarily to stem a recent decline in enrollment, they said. Each transfer student earns about $1,845 in state aid.

Although some Clayton residents say it's too early to tell if the program will ultimately succeed, they believe indications are favorable.

Joe and Dolores Kokaly said they heard about the program this summer when they were house-hunting in Clayton. When the retirees decided to move to northeastern New Mexico from Northern California, they wrote the superintendent, Mr. Austin, offering their home to a transfer student.

After only three weeks with their student, 15-year-old Russell Kaplan, they said they now believe they would like up to three students at a time.

L And Russell has expressed an interest in staying year-round.

"Everybody's a friend," he said. "You know everything and everybody in town."

But perhaps no one is happier about Clayton's transfer campaign than the Giraitises. The parents of five children -- with another expected soon -- they have found Clayton's slower pace much to their liking.

In fact, Mr. Giraitis, who initially remained in Albuquerque and commuted home on weekends, now has quit his job there to make improvements on the house they bought in Clayton. As a licensed practical nurse, he said, he can land another job in Clayton or nearby Dalhart, Texas.

"They [their daughters] come home from school happy; they can play out in the front yard; I can send them to the store without worrying about them," Mr. Giraitis said. "You don't feel that threat of 'Did I lock the door? Did I lock the pickup truck?'

"We definitely feel we hit a gold mine. . . . We have found what most parents can only dream of: peace of mind."

Roger Simon is ill. His column will resume when he returns.

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