As far back as anyone around the unincorporated town of Norden, Neb., can remember, cattle-branding season has begun in early May, just after school lets out for the year. Rather, school lets out for the year when branding season starts. Even the youngest of students participate in the ritual, which, in the same vein as an Amish barn-raising, generally involves the whole community.
Expansive livestock ranches still make up a good portion of north-central Nebraska, perhaps explaining why the state maintains the highest number of one- teacher schools in the country: 83. Twenty-seven log schoolhouses were built in Keya Paha County in 1886 alone, the year that Norden Public School was probably erected in the rolling sand hills that earned the county its name (“Turtle Hill” in the language of the Dakota Indians).
Young people have fled the ranching community, leaving behind a steadily decreasing population that could not sustain a school.
Yet, by the end of next year, only one functioning country school will be left in Keya Paha. Already, classes at Norden, like the bustling frontier town that once surrounded it, are just a memory. Norden pupils will transfer to Springview Elementary.
Young people have departed this area in droves, college bound or seeking more lucrative careers. Left behind is an aging and steadily decreasing population, “and not a pregnant woman in sight out there,” as one prominent member of the community is wont to say. As a result, enrollment in the county’s schools has taken a nose dive.
“We’ve got a number of these schools with two or three kids in them, but costs that may reach, say, $75,000,” says Nebraska Commissioner of Education Doug Christensen. “They just don’t make as much sense as they once did.”
“The state is trying to phase us out,” says Norden’s one full-time teacher, Gloria Babcock, voicing a sentiment echoed by the local school board. State aid to the school has been reduced almost 80 percent in the past 10 years.
Norden board member Katie Stortenbecker notes that the county board pays three football coaches for the high school’s 15-member team but has refused to finance Norden for next school year.
County schools Superintendent Katherine Meink defends the need for the coaches to head off player injuries. To continue funding the K-8 school, she says, would be like “paying for basically a home-schooling situation in a public setting.”
On the last day of school, May 9, more than a dozen former pupils, teachers, and neighbors gather around a potluck lunch to say their goodbyes. Flipping through dog-eared photos of their parents and grandparents, most could recall the days of hauling water from the neighbor’s house for students to use, playing games in the coal scuttle, and riding to class on horses.
“It’s like a death in the family,” says Lucy McCormick, 71, a long- time school board member.
Present-day pupils release balloons attached to notes reading: “As we let these balloons go on their journey, we begin a new journey of our own.” The flag is lowered one last time. And then ... no one wants to leave. Blustery winds finally send the last stragglers to their cars, and back to the ranch to finish the last chores before the rain pours down.