RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Millions of Americans can remember walking the proverbial miles to a one-room school with one teacher and classmates in many grades. Today's one-room schools are mostly rural, isolated places--islands, ranchland, the Alaskan bush. Independent producer Nina Ellis has been traveling the United States visiting one-room schools to find out if they have lessons to teach the rest of us. Today, in the first of her series, she takes us to four schools across the country.
NINA ELLIS reporting:
In 1918, there were 190,000 one-room schools in America. Today there are fewer than 400.
(Soundbite of flag being raised up a pole)
ELLIS: In the wide open rangeland of Meagher County, Montana, students raise the flag in front of their white clapboard one-room school, called Lennep Elementary.
(Soundbite of flag being raised)
Ms. BARB NOLAN(ph) (Teacher, Lennep Elementary School): ...(Unintelligible)
ELLIS: Barb Nolan is the teacher, reading aloud from the local paper.
Ms. NOLAN: (Reading) `On Tuesday, Gail(ph) and the girls traveled to Billings to visit Lois Marie(ph) and Susan Irion.
ELLIS: She has only four students, two in fourth and one in fifth. And while they work on their own, she has time with Tyler, who's reading directions for an art project. He's in kindergarten.
TYLER (Student, Lennep Elementary School): (Reading) `Lay out four of the long ped'...
Ms. NOLAN: Pointed.
TYLER: `Pointed fence pieces'...
Ms. NOLAN: Leaving.
TYLER: `Leaving room.'
ELLIS: All four of her students are moving at a quick pace, she says, in all their subjects.
Ms. NOLAN: I'll teach them a lesson and they just get it right off the bat. So I don't give them extra practice because I know they get it. I just move on, whereas I think if there was 30 kids, obviously there would be some that wouldn't get it that first time or the first 10 problems and so we'd move at a slower pace. Yeah, the small school for them I think has really boosted their academic achievement level.
ELLIS: Montana has more one-room schools than any other state, but it's the cities that are growing, not places like Lennep.
Group of Students: (Singing in unison) Mother, Mother, check and see, celebrate with me. Come save ...(unintelligible).
ELLIS: At an another tiny school in the grasslands of Sioux County, Nebraska, there are seven students ages five to 13. Their school is called the Pink School. It really is painted bubble-gum pink. Except for music, Tara Dunn(ph) teaches all the subjects in all the grades.
Mrs. TARA DUNN (Teacher, the Pink School): So if you take away three from 24, what do you get?
KYLE (Student, the Pink School): Twenty-four.
Mrs. DUNN: If you take away three from 24, though. You had 24...
Mrs. DUNN: Now wait just a second because you've...
KYLE: (Moans in frustration)
Mrs. DUNN: ...gotten used to you--I can always tell when I'm teaching you something new. How can I tell?
KYLE: I'm mad.
Mrs. DUNN: Yeah, you get grouchy with me, don't you? So you have eight stacks here, right?
ELLIS: Kyle is a second-grader, and Mrs. Dunn is the only teacher he's ever had. Later in the day she puts him to work reading aloud to five-year-old Becky.
KYLE: (Reading) `Road Hog has slowed down at last.'
Mrs. DUNN: Did you like that story?
BECKY (Student, The Pink School): Uh-huh.
Mrs. DUNN: Do you want to tell Kyle thank you for reading it to you?
ELLIS: Mrs. Dunn might have six more years with Kyle, but legislation is pending now that could close Nebraska's smallest schools. There's a classic debate going on about whether to consolidate the schools to achieve so-called economies of scale or keep them open despite their higher cost per student.
Ms. LYNNE TOUCHETTE (Teacher, Croydon Village School): Wow.
ELLIS: Another school now in southern New Hampshire, a red brick school with a bell tower that looks like a Currier & Ives print.
Ms. TOUCHETTE: If you could stop for a minute, I want to share something with you second- and third-graders. Some of these first-graders are learning to add two-digit numbers.
ELLIS: First-, second- and third-graders learn the basics from Lynne Touchette at Croydon Village School in Croydon, New Hampshire. The town and school, she says, are closely intertwined.
Ms. TOUCHETTE: When we have a parent night, there isn't a child who doesn't bring parents, and sometimes there's two sets of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and it's a big celebration. That says a lot to the kids because when what they're doing is that important that everyone in their family comes out to see it, that tells them more than telling them a hundred times how important their education is.
ELLIS: Four generations of Carol Marsh's family have studied here. She's on the school board.
Ms. CAROL MARSH (Croydon Village School Board): They have a tight bond between each other, a tight bond with the teacher, and they just take that forward in life with them. I mean, we're seeing it in everything they do. That solid foundation is just a monumental piece of their success.
(Soundbite of school bell)
ELLIS: Croydon, New Hampshire, has had a one-room school since 1780, but it's changing from a farming village to a bedroom community and no one was sure if newcomers would be willing to continue the tradition.
And finally to Maui, Hawaii. In a native village called Keanae, the last one-room school in the state has closed after 96 years.
(Soundbite of keys; door being unlocked)
ELLIS: They were down to three students. Florence Herald(ph), the last teacher, still has the keys to the front door.
Ms. FLORENCE HERALD (Former Teacher, Keanae School): It's a little musty. I want to show you all these books. When I first came here, the books were all over the place. `Oh, we must get rid of this. Let's blah, blah, blah.' `You can't do that!' And I look at the age of these books. `Why?' I said. `You know, we should get new ones.' `Our grandfathers and our grandmothers read these books. You cannot get rid of it.'
ELLIS: The parents fought to keep Keanae School open, but the administrator in charge, Rick Paul, moved the Keanae teaching position to another, larger school in the town of Hana, which is in trouble under No Child Left Behind. He's the principal for both schools.
Mr. RICK PAUL (School Principal): And we're a school that's in restructuring. We haven't made adequate progress for six years. And we needed to have as much staffing as we could here. So if I move the three children here and the extra position, it would help this school.
ELLIS: So this fall, kids from Keanae were bused an hour to Hana on a narrow mountain road. Their parents and grandparents, like Janet Redo, want their school back.
(Soundbite of barking dog)
Ms. JANET REDO (Maui Resident) My dad has always told me a community without a school is not a community. So he told me, `Whatever you do, fight for this school. Don't have it closed down.'
ELLIS: But the odds are against Keanae getting its school reopened.
(Soundbite of barking dog)
ELLIS: There will probably always be a few one-room schools in the US as long as people choose to live away from cities and close to the land. And in the months to come, we'll visit some small communities and see how they're trying to make their one-room schools viable, vibrant and relevant places for their kids.
For NPR News, I'm Nina Ellis.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we go to Monhegan Island, Maine, where the entire town shows up for the Christmas play at the one-room school. A map of the schools appearing in our series can be seen at npr.org.
This is NPR News.