From rural drawl to urban sprawl - Tucson Local Media: Import

From rural drawl to urban sprawl

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Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2004 12:00 am | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

When Loretta Shimniok landed a job in 1953 as art teacher at Amphitheater Junior High School, she reportedly called her mom and said "Guess what - I've been hired at a school out in the country."

On the heels of the school district's 60th anniversary, the school's road - Prince Road - was not paved, Shimniok said. The only enterprises on Oracle Road, she said, were a grocery store, a gas station and a couple of small businesses.

Now, at the district's 110th anniversary, upscale vendors and restaurants line Oracle and more than 20 schools accommodate the district's students.

The Amphitheater Foundation held an auction and gala Saturday, Feb. 7, to celebrate the anniversary.

Shimniok remembers when the school district was so rural and the accommodations so piecemeal that her art classes were held in an old dairy barn.

Elmon "Skip" Sapp, another former Amphitheater Junior High School teacher, remembers when, also in the mid-'50s, most everything north of Ina Road was desert.

A look back 110 years, though, makes the '50s terrain look urban.

When Amphi was founded in the summer of 1893, the River Road area really did have a flowing river most of the year.

Tucson's population was about 5,000, and the city was just a few years past being a typical frontier town with general stores, corrals, and saloons.

Mostly ranchers and homesteaders lived in the northwest hinterlands.

Rillito School District, the district serving the area, needed a new school. The proposed site was so far away from some residents that their children were just as well off driving to Tucson's school on Congress Street.

About 15 of those residents filed a petition to start their own school district, and Amphi was formed to serve 11 children - three more than were required at the time to form a district.

As founders set out to equip the school's building - a five-room rented house - with desks, they realized their district had no name.

One of them gazed at the mountains surrounding them and noted that the spot looked like an enormous amphitheater. The name stuck.

The school moved from rental to rental until Amphi built a wood one-room schoolhouse in 1904 on Prince Road and First Avenue.

At that time, most of the students had Anglo last names. But most of the Anglo students left the school in the next few years, and attendance dwindled.

The district's only school was boarded up.

A teacher, Martha Johnson, went door to door and recruited young students so the school could open again.

In 1913, the wood building moved to its first permanent spot, the current location of Amphitheater Middle School. It later served as a shed on the property, when a one-room adobe schoolhouse replaced it.

In 1920, the district needed two classrooms, so two teachers divided the adobe schoolhouse with a map. In 1924, four additional classrooms and a new face were built.

During the Depression, the district built its first high school in 1939 with money from the Works Progress Administration.

By the time Shimniok began teaching art in a dairy barn, in 1953, a new high school building was on its way, and the old one was two years away from housing Amphitheater Junior High School, Shimniok said.

By that time, the school district had about 2,500 students.

Shimniok's art building had a leaking gas furnace and termites that ate her art paper. It sat next to two military surplus buildings.

"I was out in the far reaches in my dairy barn," she said.

Strapped for cash, the district had bought surplus buildings from the Marana air base, Fort Huachuca and a Florence prisoner of war camp. It also had procured an old Tucson treatment facility for women with venereal disease for use by the district.

During the early years, Shimniok held a spring art show under a big mesquite tree on the campus. Now, students' art is exhibited in malls, she said.

"They take it to the mall because that's were the kids and parents would be on a Saturday," she said. "You'd have a hard time finding anyone who'd want to be on a Saturday morning at the school."

Sapp also remembers teaching at Amphitheater Junior High School in the mid '50s.

At that time, his home near La Cholla Boulevard and Ina Road was about as far north as anything was built. His children sometimes crossed Ina to set off firecrackers in the desert.

Only a few streets had substantial housing developments, and poultry operations were prevalent.

The students came from families that knew each other well.

"There weren't many people coming from somewhere else," Sapp said. "Most of them knew each other since they were babies."

Classrooms had no cooling, so at the hottest time of the year, students perspired all over their work and smudged it, Sapp said.

"I couldn't give writing assignments for two weeks," he said.

While at the school, Sapp met his wife, Anne, who also taught there.

She taught in the basement, where termites scaled the walls in solid lines.

Overhead, students in a math class raced to and from the chalkboard, making a terrible racket.

"With the termites up there, I thought someday the floor's going to come down on me," she said.

In the spring, workmen piled manure outside the hot classroom, creating an awful stench.

"We didn't know whether to close the windows," she said.

Amphi couldn't remain rural forever, though. As northwest Tucson grew, so did the need for schools.

By the 1960s, the district had about 10 schools, and was receiving national recognition.

Lulu Walker Elementary School, 1750 W. Roller Coaster Road, began using a progressive teaching model that allowed students to direct their own education by following individualized itineraries.

Foreign visitors wanting to see the model in action visited schools in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington D.C., and Amphi's Walker Elementary School.

Amphi now has about 20 schools, including three high schools.

But the Sapps, who still live near the corner of Ina and La Cholla, fondly remember a time when some children in the school district learned to drive cars in the barren lot near their home that is now Foothills Mall.

"It was a tiny district in a very tiny town," Anne Sapp said.

Much of this information came from "Amphitheater" by Peyton Revis and Amphi's historical link at www.amphi.com.

Celebration Gala

The Amphitheater Public Schools' 110th anniversary gala was held Feb. 7 to raise money for Amphitheater Foundation.

The foundation operates a clothing bank, supports school projects through grants, and pays emergency medical costs for students who don't have insurance.

The gala, held at the Hilton El Conquistador Resort, included an auction, with items ranging from a $25 restaurant gift certificate to a painting valued at $1,500.

BHP Copper was the primary sponsor of the event.

About 140 people attended the event, including former associate superintendent Richard Hooley and former assistant superintendent Cathy Esposito.

As of press time, proceeds from the event had not been tabulated and no estimate was available.

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