Anyone who read Anne of Green Gables, the Little House on the Prairie series or even Tom Sawyer is familiar with the country school house where kids of many ages come together to be taught by one teacher switching from elementary school material all the way to high school. According to John Hill, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, such school houses still exist in some isolated parts of the country, but their numbers are falling rapidly with as few as 400 now operating.
Hill is talking about schools like the one in Divide, Montana – which has only 4 students – who are taught by a teacher who also performs the roles of administrator, nurse and counselor. There are about 60 other similar schools around Montana, the most in the country. But for how long?
Increased urbanization due to the recession makes it harder for some of these schools to justify keeping their doors open. Enrollment is shrinking with rural population decline, raising pressure to consolidate or close. Some rural schools are operating on a bare-bones budget, which means low pay for teachers and little money left over for the curriculum.
But small school administrators, rural towns and teachers hold onto their schools, arguing the venues offer superior education in part because of their small size. They also fear that with the closure of the school, the rural community will go with it.
The Divide schoolhouse has only two rooms. Both were once used as classrooms but as enrollment shrunk, the other room has been converted into a library and an art supply closet.
The curriculum in Divide is surprisingly rich. Thanks to a federal grant from the Rural Education Achievement Program, in addition to the traditional subjects students also learn gardening and get weekly technology lessons where they use laptops issued by the school.
The school is expected to grow next year by 50%, as two additional students are expected to enroll next fall.
The picture isn’t as hopeful in Melrose, also in Montana. Roxie Bulen taught as many as 18 students only 5 years ago, but now the school enrolls only two kids and only one is expected to come back next year.
Bulen, who came from teaching larger schools in Minnesota, praised the small-school education, saying students can’t fall through the cracks and that teachers, familiar with students’ weaknesses and strengths, can mold their teaching styles to serve the varying needs of their students, she said.
But if the student population doesn’t grow, the future of Melrose School — and the community of Melrose — is uncertain.
“I think having the school is the only way for the community to grow,” Bulen said.