From Horsemanship to Robotics, Students Thrive At Arizona Boarding School

Published: Friday, October 14, 2016 - 5:29pm
Updated: Friday, October 14, 2016 - 5:37pm
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(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
A sign points to the Orme School on a dirt road off of the I-17 in Central Arizona.

Drive about an hour north of Phoenix, turn left off of the I-17 at Orme Road, and the pavement turns to dirt pretty quickly. And, a few miles farther, you’ll see a wooden post with four sticks hanging from it in the shape of a cattle brand.

“It’s a quarter circle, V, bar,” according to Sheila June. “That’s the brand that they brand on the cows so it kind of just became the school symbol, too.”

June is a junior at the Orme School, a boarding school built on the Orme family ranch in Central Arizona in 1929 that is still a working cattle ranch today.

She is from Los Angeles and came to summer camp at the school for years before asking her parents if she could transfer here from her large Catholic high school. She said it took some convincing.

“You blink and you miss it kind of thing, it’s like in the middle of the desert, and I’m sending my kid off here, like “oh my gosh!'” she said over lunch in a crowded hall on campus. Unlike her old high school, Orme has only 110 students. “I just wanted something different, you know? And Orme offered that,” she said.

And going to school on a cattle ranch in Arizona is definitely different.

“It’s most definitely like a little town,” said Remington “Remy” Phinny, another student at the school. “We have Intro to Horsemanship this year and, I think, horse training, which I did my sophomore year. We had a colt-breaking class.”

“There’s gardening, horsemanship, swimming, football, there’s robotics,” lists upperclassman Elijah Smythe. “The 3-D art program was a big selling point.”

They said there’s also glass blowing here, blacksmithing, sustainability class and, of course, cattle branding in the spring.

Just a third of the students at the school are from Arizona.

“My roommate last year was from Italy, I have a roommate today from Vietnam, I know people from Ethiopia, Germany, all over the U.S.,” June said.

And, according to Headmaster Bruce Sanborn, “They come from nearly a dozen states and nearly 30 countries.”

Tuition at the school runs as much as many private universities at $46,000 a year. But, according to Sanborn, students come here from all kinds of backgrounds.

“We have students from rural backgrounds, urban backgrounds, students from families with a significant amount of wealth, and those with hardly a dime in their pocket,” he said, “and all those kinds of dynamics allow for a significant amount of growth.”

At least half of their students from Arizona are on some kind of need-based scholarship, and they have a scholarship fund specifically for students from Arizona.

Some of the students end up at Orme because their local schools weren’t challenging them enough, or “they’re attending a pretty strong school, but they’re kind of falling through the cracks,” Sanborn said.

At her old school, Phinny said she wasn’t doing as well as she knew she could.

“I was like a C average student, which was, like, terrible to say, and I’m so like ashamed of saying that,” she said. But, now, she’s an honor student.

“I’m applying to UC Boulder, Michigan State, Oregon State, and I actually just got enrolled into NAU,” she said. “I got my first college acceptance letter yesterday.”

These students say it was harder for their parents to send them to boarding school than it was for them to leave home at 15 or 16 years old. They say they’ve been independent their whole lives.

With cicadas buzzing around us, the students take me on a tour of their campus. We walk past the original schoolhouse where the Orme family taught their children and their ranch hands’ children, through the library, the non-religious chapel, the orchard, the school garden, and past faculty houses and dorms.

They speak their own language, from Up Bio and Down Bio (the girls' dorms and hang-out spot) to Up Top, where the horses are housed.

In just a few hours, they mention Founders (the dining hall), Vespers (a formal night of sorts featuring speakers and dinner), AODs and prefects (Administrator on Duty and their student helper), and Girls Camp and Boys Camp (they’re far across campus from one another.)

All three list off the names of all of the dorms together: “McClure, Cattle Bale, Up Flower Pot, Down Flower Pot, Keating, Butterfly, Ball.”

It feels like a tight-knit community off in its own little world on the ranch with the cicadas buzzing, but, even out here, there are reminders that these are still modern teenagers.

When I asked if they had cell phones on campus or had any service, they laughed and said they live off of wifi.

“You get the best service Up Top, you actually get LTE,” Phinny said. “You get LTE Up Top, and it’s the best thing ever!”

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