June 24, 2013

No School Left Behind: Saving Montana's Rural Classrooms

  • By: Aria Danaparamita

The little school on the prairie. Rural schoolhouses, like this one in western Montana, may soon exist only in fiction.

Sandy Hart’s grandmother rode her horse to school. Out in rural Montana, wooden bell towers ring in the school day as the stars and stripes flutter atop lone flagpoles.

Tucked among mountains and prairies, these schoolhouses only have one or two classrooms. Yet steeped in the state’s homestead history, the rough hewn logs, clapboard, or cobblestone walls, are -- or were once -- a beacon for learning and community life.

Montana abounds with these one-and-two room schools built to educate children in the countryside. But these schools are getting, literally, left behind.

Wheeler Butte School. This over-100-years-old cabin in Sweet Grass County is slowly decaying from neglect.

Pioneer families who moved out to the Western Frontier settled in remote clusters across the state. Isolated from town centers, the farming and ranching families built the now iconic schools for the community's children, usually K-8.

“These schoolhouses are lasting symbols of the heritage of the people who settled and make up the population of Montana,” Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance, says. “They’re deeply loved by people throughout our state.”

As more rural residents move to the cities, many of the schools have been forced to consolidate or close. With funding resources dwindling with the departing students, the underused or altogether abandoned schools are vulnerable to harsh weather, vandalism, and razing.

At one time there were about 2,600 rural schoolhouses in the state of Montana alone. Only around 60 still operate there now.

The Leonard Section School is one of hundreds that have collapsed and need restoration.

Carol Chambers, a Gallatin Valley resident, used to go to a one-room school. Girls in dresses and boys in bib overalls walked or rode bareback to school, she recounts.

Inside, the cabins were modestly furnished: a blackboard, desks, and chairs. The teacher would start a fire on the wood stove “to get it warmed up for the kids,” Chambers says.

Outside, a makeshift merry-go-round or some sort of playground awaited the children for recess and lunch.

“The little kids sat in the front and the bigger kids sat in the back,” Chambers recalls.

The teacher -- also principal, administrator, nurse, and counselor -- alternated course materials for the diverse ages. Teachers would also rotate to different schools across the county so the students didn't have the same instructor for eight years.

“They taught everything -- music, penmanship, English, math, science -- and they would do it for all eight grades,” Chambers says.

Huddled in the wood or cobblestone cabins, the kids shared books and pencils and papers. “And that was about it,” Hart, another Gallatin Valley local involved in saving the Little Bear School, says. With lack of resources, educators had to get creative. One teacher reportedly used a potato for a globe, peeling areas to represent oceans and continents.

Interior of a schoolhouse in Twin Bridges, thought to be Montana's oldest standing public school.

In addition to the structures, many argue the small school experience must also be treasured. Sharing the small space, and often working together to build fires and fetch water, the children cultivated a strong work ethic as well as intellectual and creative discoveries.

“They got a really phenomenal education because it [was] very personalized,” Jiusto says.

The schoolhouses were also more than just classrooms.

“People voted, people got their mail sometimes there, they had community celebrations, Christmas, pageants, reunions, county dances, all kinds of social activities,” Jiusto says.

“It was a way of life,” says Hart. And for the dozens still left standing, it still is.

This blackboard at Placer School once helped the children of Broadwater County learn to read and write.

The Montana Preservation Alliance (MPH) and the Montana History Foundation (MHF), as well as dedicated country residents, now hope to preserve these rural classrooms, which were recently placed on the National Trust's 2013 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places.

Through partnerships, the MPA and MHF provide small grants and technical assistance for locals who want to preserve a rural school and are directing profits from the sale of Charlotte Caldwell’s book, Visions and Voices: Montana's One-Room Schoolhouses, to restoration projects.

“The momentum for preserving these schools comes from local people,” Jiusto explains.

One successful tale is the Little Bear School in Hart and Chambers' home county, restored and then relocated by local volunteers -- "seven or eight ladies," Hart recalls -- and now converted into a museum.

“It had been used as a cattle shed so we cleaned the windows and the manure off the floor. The manure was so deep and had gotten so hard that it had preserved the original wood floor,” Hart said. “We had fundraisers, we had firecracker stands, we went to fairs and had our cotton candy and popcorn and raffles, and we earned all of the money to restore it.”

Eight years later, the museum, exhibiting the school in its 1912 state, was opened to public.

The Rattlesnake School. Children were told to keep the door shut to ward off snakes while fences kept livestock away.

Caldwell, who is an active preservationist, traveled to all 56 counties to capture the schoolhouses before it was too late.

“I fell in love with these iconic and humble rural buildings,” she says. “Some were very rudimentary, and some displayed highly skilled craftsmanship, but they all provide valuable insights into the past and into our culture.”

For rural communities, these classrooms were the only opportunity Montana's children had at an education.

“When I learned to read, it was the greatest thing that ever happened. It opened that whole world,” Chambers says.

“If we don’t act now to preserve these special buildings, they’ll be lost,” Jiusto stresses. “And not only the buildings, but also the connection to the people.”

The schoolhouses' story -- that is, the story of Montana, the Western Frontier, and American pioneering -- is still very much alive: many people in Montana today either attended them when they were young or have relatives who taught there.

“When they lost the rural schools, they lost America,” said 97-year-old Viola Beyers in Caldwell's book. But one hopes Montana’s homesteading spirit can live on, passed on teacher to student, one rural classroom at a time.

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