Every school in every town has a culture. It has a feeling. In Amado, everyone uses the word "family" to describe what it's like to work at Sopori Elementary School, where every grade is small enough to be contained to just one classroom.
Sopori School District No. 49 became part of Sahuarita Unified School District in 1967. Three years later, the two prefab buildings that had comprised the old Sopori School were moved to Sahuarita and became the district's administration building. In 1970, a newly constructed Sopori Elementary School opened to 200 students.
Today, 120 students attend the school in grades K-5. Some live in Amado, others are bused from Arivaca and Elephant Head.
Principal Jim Heinzelmann considers himself lucky. The school district has had a teacher turnover rate of 5 to 10 percent in recent years, but Sopori hasn't lost a teacher in six years.
Third grade teacher Anna Chamberlain said if people do leave the school it tends to be because that they retired or their spouses have transferred.
"I would have to say it’s the environment here," she said. "When you walk on campus it’s a very welcoming environment. The community, the parents we deal with, the students we deal with."
Chamberlain found the environment so pleasant she couldn't stay away even though she lives 45 miles away near Vail. She retired in 2015, after 26 years of teaching, only to come back the following year with the employment agency smartschoolsplus.
Teachers who sign contracts with smartschoolsplus return to the classroom at a reduced salary while still retirement checks from the state retirement system. School districts benefit because they can fill positions and no longer must match teacher contributions to the state retirement system.
Chamberlain worked as a substitute last year and this year she's subbing for a teacher on maternity leave. Jana Turner did the same thing. She taught a variety of grades at Sopori for 29 years and is in her third year with smartschoolsplus. This year she's a reading specialist.
It's a family thing
Turner loves that many of her students' parents were once her students. Sopori families tend to stay in the area and former students are always popping their heads in to say hello at the school's annual Halloween Parade, Thanksgiving feast, open houses and year-end festivities.
Isabel Alvarez said there's a special place in her heart for Sopori, where she has been an instructional aide for 20 years. She was a student at the school and her grown children also attended the school.
Sopori is also special because of the level of support staff gets from the administration, she said.
"We’ve had great administrators so it makes it really easy to want to come to work every day," Turner said. "That’s not always the case. When you come up with an idea or you have something you might like to try, Mr. Heinzelmann will listen to you and will let you try it. He’ll guide us through things."
Chamberlain said that whether it's personal or professional, all of the administrators at Sopori have been there to listen.
Bill Ferrill, Sopori's lone male teacher, came to the school 13 years ago after 18 years in several other school districts. Working at Sopori is like "working in a whole other world," he said.
Not only does Heinzelmann support his teachers, but the entire community does, too, Ferrill said. They show up to all of the school events and that translates into students who always put forth their best effort, he said.
Second-grade teacher Margot Herndon arrived at Sopori eight years ago after spending time at Sahuarita Primary School and teaching in Illinois and Indiana.
"It feels like a family," she said. "I went to a small school in Indiana where there was one class for each grade. It was a family then and I feel like that now."
It's a unique experience being able to get to know every student in your class and then get to watch them grow up, she said. It's also nice being able to go to other teachers to discuss whatever problems your student might be having to get advice.
"I can go to their first-grade teacher to find out about their skills, their different behaviors and their learning styles," Herndon said. "I'm able to find out what works best for them."
Stephanie Cook was a first-grade teacher at SPS for six years before she became a counselor at Sopori five years ago. She, too, loves the small student population.
"I know the name of every K-5 student, and try to learn something unique each time I interact with them," she said. "Many students will share exciting news about their family or a sweet story about their favorite pet or how they are improving in a sport they play, and I am happy to just listen. I celebrate the happy times and walk beside them when life gets tough."
Chamberlain said she was disappointed two years ago when people objected strenuously to a redistricting plan that would have led to 130 students being bused to Amado from Sahuarita. She and first-grade teacher Robin Kleinholz said that when people hear the majority of Sopori's students qualify for free- and reduced-cost lunches they form unfavorable opinions of the school and the students.
"It is disappointing, but the way I look at it it’s their loss because this is a great campus and there are great teachers here," Chamberlain said. "Everybody needs to understand our demographics and until you walk in our shoes you shouldn’t be saying anything negative about us."
When her children were small, she brought them to Sopori with her rather than have them go to Tucson schools.
"I think kids need to be exposed to everything in the world," she said. "I think kids need to realize it’s not a black-and-white world. This world is made up of many different kinds of people and why you wouldn’t want your kids to come to Sopori, I don’t know."
Kleinholz and fourth-grade teacher Monica Schott agree with Chamberlain that the parents of Sopori students all want their students to excel and the students are eager to learn. Going to work every day is a pleasure, she said.
"We really feel like we’re giving back. I retired from a finance background and every day I say I am so glad that I did something worthy," she said. "I’m sorry, pushing numbers doesn’t do it for me. I feel like it’s completing my life. I’m doing something worthwhile."
Schott, too, lives in Vail, and has been making the drive for eight years.
"I drive an hour to work every day and an hour home every day and I do that because of the kids and because of the staff I work with," Schott said. "The kids appreciate being cared about. They appreciate what we have to give them and our staff is just amazing. We all support each other. Who wouldn’t want to be in a place like this?"