• U.S.

Public Schools: Survival of the One-Room

5 minute read

In historical parks across the U.S., tiny museum-piece schoolhouses, with belfry, potbellied stove and initial-scarred benches, set city-bred youngsters to speculating about how “cute” the one-teacher, one-room school must have been. Yet for a surprising number of children, this kind of school is neither quaint nor historical: they attend one daily. Despite the big trend toward consolidation, some 10,000 one-room schools still function in rural America.

The number has been dropping steadily: from 196,037, or 70% of public grade schools, in 1918, to 13,330, about 20%, in 1960. To survive, a one-room school has to be firmly rooted in its isolated location far from population centers and in the fierce pride of rural residents who want their own school and fear the “corrupting” influence—and higher taxes—of the town school districts. The one-room school is most numerous in such Midwest states as Nebraska, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, most hardy in the mountain regions of Montana, Colorado and Nevada.

Roof Water. In Unityville, S. Dak., a twelve-family hamlet 42 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, Mrs. Alice Lundberg, 36, drives her white ’59 Mercury eight miles from her farmhouse each morning to reach the white wooden schoolhouse by 7:45 a.m. Alone in the 28-ft. by 25-ft. classroom, she spends 80 minutes plotting the day’s 36 separate topics for her 17 pupils, who come from seven nearby farm families. She teaches them on six grade levels, from first to eighth (she has no sixth and seventh graders). The 68-year-old school is surrounded by corn and barley fields; 48 silos filled with Government-owned surplus corn loom near by.

The school has no running water, which explains one of the “Ten Commandments” hung on the wall: STOP AND THINK BEFORE YOU DRINK. (Another one says: CHOOSE A DATE WHO WOULD MAKE A GOOD MATE.) Children drink from a canister containing rainwater drained off the schoolhouse roof. Prominent on a bookshelf near the door is a roll of toilet tissue, from which the children unselfconsciously tear off a length as they leave for one of the two privies out back under a couple of evergreens.

At the 9:05 bell, the patient, methodical Mrs. Lundberg plunges into her multiple chores. For 15 minutes she flashes reading cards to her three first-graders, has them read a story, George and the Cherry Tree. Some of the others stray from their individual assignments to follow the story. Next comes a second-grade language class for Keith Myren, 8, and Becky Koepsell, 7, interrupted by questions from the still-reading first-graders. Then second-graders read aloud, while Mrs. Lundberg checks desk-to-desk on the work of others. An eight-minute science lesson for the fourth and fifth grades centers on such questions as “Why is water often muddy?” Mrs. Lundberg deftly fields second-grade arithmetic questions while teaching eighth-grade biology, stops to help a boy identify a picture in his reading book. If a pupil cannot get her attention, he amiably asks an older pupil, who is happy to help.

So it goes throughout Mrs. Lundberg’s day. The children remain cooperative and orderly, observing the rule that no more than two can leave their desks at once. Mrs. Lundberg, who has taught for 16 years in one-room schools, has altered her methods little during that time, and doubts the value of such trends as new math and language techniques. “We prefer the traditional methods,” she says. “The only technique is good planning.”

A Pickled Bat. Elsewhere one-room teachers, more open to new methods, take advantage of their unique situation to create a modern ideal: the ungraded school. In a five-year-old, electrically heated brick school amid the rolling hills of Acton, Mont., 20 miles from Billings, Mrs. Lorna McKenney, 40, lets her nine pupils ignore grade lines, develop at any pace they can. Lugene Ivie, in her second year, reads so fast she stumbles over the words.

Based on state tests, six of the pupils rate above the national averages in reading, language and arithmetic.

When a child surpasses in arithmetic, his name goes on the blackboard in colored chalk. One day last week, five names were on the board and, explained Mrs. McKenney, “Connie’s name should also be in color, but yellow is the only color left and she detests yellow.” The school’s prized science exhibit is a pickled bat; its biologically educational mascot is a live monkey.

Mrs. McKenney insists that her school compares favorably with most city schools. “We have a full day of teaching here. No breaks for announcements. No running in the halls. No stopping in the middle of a sentence when the bell rings. These kids here aren’t underprivileged.”

“Rather Sorry Places.” Yet one-room schools are dying for sound and substantial reasons. Mrs. Lundberg may preserve good three-R education, and Mrs. McKenney may prove that a one-room school can adopt new trends. But the bulk of such schools, says Robert Isenberg of the N.E.A.’s rural-education department, “tend to be rather sorry, ill-equipped places.” Buildings are as much as 100 years old. Most of the teachers have had less than four years of college training.

The handicaps of having to teach all grades at once are ultimately insuperable, and the children often go into high schools unable to compete with pupils from bigger grade schools. Isenberg estimates that by 1970 there will be fewer than 5,000 one-room schools. The buildings will be torn down, sold as American Legion posts, or kept as reminders of the institution that first made possible the American ideal of universal education.

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