Vanishing Heritage

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One-room schools are as American as apple pie. That's the conclusion many writers have drawn as they've witnessed the disappearance of the nation's country schools. Those stories, ever more common, typically start with an anecdote—a prank played on a young, flustered teacher, a treacherous walk to school in blizzard conditions, a vivid encounter with an outhouse privy. They inevitably end with a sentimental hats-off to a beloved rural school that is on the verge of closing its doors forever.

As educators and researchers increasingly turn their attention to the benefits of small schools—praising such factors as cooperative learning and small teacher-pupil ratios for nurturing students with good grades and attendance, as well as fewer behavioral problems—these celebrated places of learning have shrunk in numbers that would make a schoolmarm cringe. Today, there are just one-fifth of 1 percent the number of one-teacher schools (the U.S. Department of Education's definition) that existed 90 years ago. At that time, such schools totaled more than 200,000 and educated more than half the nation's youths, rarely past the 8th grade.

Tucked at the ends of dusty roads and amid pine forests, one-room schoolhouses are becoming a rare sight on America's landscape.

Experts say the industrial boom of the early 20th century, the push for school consolidation over the next 50 years, and the present-day education budget crises have all contributed to the decline of one-teacher schools, which now number only 423.

A closer look at statistics from the Education Department shows a South that has all but lost its one-teacher schools and an East that is soon to follow suit. As a 1997 study on trends in one-room schools pointed out, almost 90 percent were located west of the Mississippi River.

"Four grey walls and a door
Six windows dim and small
A desk, map, seats, plain floor;
Again I see it all."

—Edna Schoettger
The Sway of the School Bell

Vanishing Heritage: View an accompanying photo gallery.

Those that survived have learned to adapt: Most now feature computers with Internet connections and visiting- teacher specialists. Some have even incorporated a "charter" into the title and character of their newly reinvented schools. Yet many continue to offer their own brand of small-town community support and the same down-home education.

Following are glimpses into the lives of four "country schools" that have survived to carry this evolved tradition into the 21st century.

Vol. 22, Issue 38, Pages 24-29

Published in Print: May 28, 2003, as Vanishing Heritage
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