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Traditions in a One-Room Schoolhouse

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Bad Axe, Mich.--They named this place the Red School back in 1913, even though they painted it white.

Tradition was important back then, and since the original schoolhouse at this crossroads in Michigan's "thumb" was painted red, well, this one would just have to go by the same name.

Tradition still means a lot in one of Michigan's last remaining one-room schoolhouses, placed next to a cornfield in the rural hamlet of 150. Take away the Pac-Man T-shirts and 50-star American flag, and you could be back in 1913. Bicycles, not buses, still bring everyone to the Red School, and the day's start is still signaled by the clanging of a large bell.

In a building the size of a roadside gas station, 19 students--spanning kindergarten through the 8th grade--crowd in for a basic no-nonsense education, a few lessons in patriotism, and the time-honored daily recess.

"The job of teaching here hasn't changed much in 68 years," says Betsy Pike, who serves as teacher, janitor, nurse, and disciplinarian to the Red School's students. "In many ways, working here is like working in a history museum."

Ms. Pike, however, regards her school as more than a curious anachronism. Never mind that the dirty-kneed farmers' children she teaches look like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Disregard the clapboard building, creaking oak floors, and well-water plumbing. She and the others in Michigan's third-smallest school district boast of academic excellence, and they have the test scores to support their claim.

Last year, each of the school's seven students old enough to take the Michigan Assessment Test scored well above the state norm. This year, they expect to do better.

Such intense pride is what keeps this one-room school going, long after most others have quietly faded away. Sixty years ago there were 200,000 one-room schoolhouses in the nation; today there are fewer than 1,000. In Michigan, only two dozen have survived, and the number shrinks every year.

State education officials make it no secret that they consider one-room schools inefficient--both in cost and methods--and would like to see them phased out.

"I'm not saying students don't learn in those places," said Tom Farrell, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. "But one-room schoolhouses don't have the money or facilities to offer the kind of education you find at larger schools."

There is no immediate talk of closing this particular country school. This fall, Ms. Pike expects four new kindergartners, who will swell enrollment to 22 students, the highest figure in years.

Those 22 will get essentially the same brand of education their grandparents received decades ago at the Red School. Reading is emphasized, so that a 1st grader has no trouble plowing through a textbook designed for 3rd graders. Music is taught whenever a piano-playing mother happens to stop by. Field trips begin in the sprawling cornfield out back.

What this school lacks is modern science equipment, varied electives, and a gym. A flat stone serves as second base at the makeshift softball diamond. The library is housed in a rickety bookshelf built from scrap wood by a student's father.

But no one minds the austere facilities. Red School may not have modern comforts, says Ms. Pike, but neither does it have problems of student violence, teacher burnout, drugs, or uninterested parents. Her biggest discipline problem these days is keeping the school's only 1st grader from letting his German shepherd into the classroom.

The school day begins with seven spelling tests and ends with students dividing up the chores involved in cleaning up the place.

In between, there are 53 lesson plans, six reading assignments, a softball game, and a calamity that arises when the 1st grader's dog steals lunches off the window sill.

"This was a slow day," says Ms. Pike, who has taught at the Red School for four years. "Normally, things are much more hectic."

Ms. Pike, 26, is the school district's only employee. For $11,500 per year, she spends nights and weekends drawing up lesson plans appropriate for each of the nine grade levels.

Spelling Test

During the day, students work quietly at their desks while Ms. Pike summons them grade by grade for instruction. A spelling test comes with rapid-fire directions: "Second graders--hay; 3rd graders--cabin; Brent and Billy--mosquito; 7th and 8th graders--assistant."

The student newspaper, printed every Friday, reports on a 5th grader's trip to see the Statler Brothers, the singing group, and editorializes about the need for a new school softball.

Later on, students plant flowers in mud donated from a local farmer's pigpen and brave the afternoon heat with outdoor calisthenics.

These students have known each other for years. Among the 19 are six sets of brothers and sisters.

"That's the best part," exclaims Jean Mausolf, a 2nd grader who finds herself protected by two older brothers. "They help me on stuff I don't understand and stop anyone from beating me up."

The Red School costs only $30,000 per year to operate, according to local officials. The district's property-tax rate is among the lowest in the state.

The teacher, Ms. Pike, contends that smaller means better in this educational setting. "I think students here learn more," she says. "I can give them the individual attention they wouldn't get in a school of 500. And we're not bothered by the rules and red tape of large school districts."

Annette Lawrence, 14 years old, doesn't know about red tape, but the Red School's oldest student knows what she likes.

"If I had to go to one of the crowded city schools, I'd just hate it," she says. "Here, you can do what you want without bumping into anyone. There, it's just unbearable."

And her major complaint?

"Well, there's no boys my age here, and that's too bad. But my mother says I can't date until I'm 16 anyway, so it doesn't really matter.''

Annette and the other older students help Ms. Pike by tutoring the youngest. The teacher's job is also made easier by parents dedicated to retaining the country school. Most supplies, from Kleenex to a new basketball hoop, are donated by parents. Last year's Christmas pageant brought in every resident of Bad Axe, plus a few who made the 10-mile trip from Filion.

"Most of the parents went to school here, so they've got strong feelings about the place," Ms. Pike says. "The Red School is like the cornfields and dairy farms around here. It's a permanent part of the scenery."

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