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Lessons From The Past

by Bill O'Donnell
Copyright 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Driving along an Ozarks country road, I couldn’t help but notice the old one room schoolhouse sitting off in the trees. Sitting along the roadside, surrounded by the grays and browns of the winter forest, its windows boarded and its paint worn, it seemed almost lonely. As I poked about the grounds, kicking wet fallen leaves, I almost thought I could hear the distant voices of the children who had attended this once utilitarian but now quaint school. Did they get a better education than kids of today, or worse?

The old building intrigued me, and I decided to learn more about these country institutions. The little red, one room school house is an image of pioneer education near and dear to most Americans. It exemplifies a simpler time, a time when life was less stressful and education more effective. Unfortunately, like many such romantic images, the truth is both greater and less than our imaginings.

As I learned more about one room schools, I realized that a lot of what I "knew" just wasn’t so. First, they were more often white than red. In the New England states, red was the usual color, but not so in the rest of the nation. Unpainted log schools were the first on the vast frontier, followed by clapboard structures, some painted, some not. When they were painted, white was the most common color, but almost any color you can imagine was applied to some school somewhere. Missouri had strict regulations about the color of the schools. White was mandatory for all wooden schools, except log ones of course. The interiors had to be painted a light blue.

Secondly, not all these rural country schools were of one room. Some had two or more small rooms and a few had second stories. They served the local community and only became the multiple roomed schools we know today after a process called "consolidation."

Lastly, the one room school house is not the exclusive property of the pioneers. They continued in use in some areas until the very recent past. They were in widespread use in rural Missouri until 1957, when they were consolidated. The last one in Iowa closed in 1984. Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota each have over one hundred still in use. Over eight hundred are still in operation in twenty-nine of the fifty states. The leader is Pennsylvania, where Amish and Mennonite communities still rely on them. Today the one room is more likely to be a mobile home than the quaint little schoolhouse. In the Missouri Ozarks, consolidation took place around the end of the 1950s, with many one room schools operating into 1959. A few parochial one room schools continue in Missouri, Ohio and other states to this day.

The rugged landscape of the Ozarks made travel difficult in the early days of settlement. Roads were few and poor, usually little more than wagon ruts. Unlike most other areas, the Ozarks also lacked centralized towns and cities. Folks tended to live on widely scattered homesteads, farming and hunting for their needs, only rarely going to commercial centers for trade goods they couldn’t make on their own.

The building of the school was often the first "community" development in an area. The first schools were haphazard affairs, built by local labor and financed by “subscription”. Under the subscription system, parents paid the costs of their children’s education directly, much like private schools today.

Once a school was established in an area, it became a sort of focus. Children from the local area could meet each other and mingle. As they grew to know each other, a sense of belonging to a particular area grew. They were developing a sense of community. Since the school was often the only community building, it quickly evolved into a community center of sorts. Elections were held there, church meetings, and even weddings regularly took place in the one room schools.

One traditional activity at a one room school was the "pie supper." Jackie Cheatham, who attended a one room school near Huzzah, Missouri, says that "every woman or girl brought a pie in a decorated box. An auctioneer sold each pie to the highest bidder. The idea, of course, was for the men and boys to buy the pies of the woman with whom they wanted to eat. It was supposed to be a secret who had prepared each pie box, but the girls always made sure their boyfriends knew which box to bid on."

Teachers became part of the communities they served. Typically, they would board with a local family. In many communities it was prestigious to have the school teacher stay at your home for a term. As teachers frequently came and went, there were ample opportunities for different families to have the privilege of hosting them.

Many folks are taken with the notion that one room schools provided a better education than modern schools. Like any other generalization, this belief is both true and false. Teachers were largely responsible for whether or not their pupils (sometimes called "scholars") got a good education. Then as today, there were some excellent teachers, some terrible teachers, and a vast majority of hardworking, good competent teachers trying to get the job done.

Many older folks look back fondly on their educational experience in the one room schools. Each school had a “recitation bench” in the front where the children would sit, waiting for their turn to stand and recite their lessons. Most learning was done by rote. For example, children could quote The Charge of the Light Brigade word for word without understanding its meaning. Other activities included "ciphering matches." which were a sort of spelling bee with numbers. The traditional "spell down" or spelling bee wasn’t much different from today’s, although teams were generally organized according to sex.

Educational methods were different in the one room school than they are today. Children of several different grades were exposed to similar materials. Younger students could "preview" what they would be learning later. Older students were encouraged to assist the younger ones in learning their lessons, which both helped develop leadership skills and helped the teacher with the workload! The grade structure we know today was somewhat different. Children would read through text books called "primers," the famous McGuffey Reader is a familiar example. The primers were written for different levels of ability, first, second and so on. A child might be on his third primer (equal to about third grade) in reading, but only at a first grade level in math or civics.

Students then were not necessarily any more motivated than students today. Mrs Cheatham recalls that some of "these kids were not the finest of students, nor did their parents see much value in education. They attended until the age of sixteen, when the State of Missouri allowed them to quit. Since they were more or less biding their time until their sixteenth birthday rolled around, passing from one grade to the next was not a high priority. That’s how we came to have 15 year old third graders, a situation that made life truly interesting for the teacher."

Of course many students, hopefully most, did value their education. Mrs Cheatham remembered that "the school library consisted of about 50 very old, dusty books tucked into a small closet. I often finished my work with time to spare and was allowed to fill out the time by visiting the library. Since I had never seen another library, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. I read every book at least once and many of them several times."

Another popular myth is that children of that era behaved better and were better students than today. Mrs Cheatham recalls that "the students weren’t always well behaved. Morning and afternoon recess and the lunch hour provided plenty of opportunities for the rowdier students to get into trouble. The older boys particularly liked to smoke grapevines behind the boys’ outhouse." Inside the school though, order was maintained, at least at Mrs Cheatham’s school "I remember the classroom as being orderly and quiet at all times despite the number of different classes and activities." Teachers weren’t hesitant to dole out corporal punishment when needed. Lynn Staples of Eminence, MO, who attended the Storeys Creek School says "when someone was due to get paddled after school, we’d all line up outside to peek in the windows and watch."

Letting children advance at their own pace, and allowing older students to tutor the younger eventually faded from the educational scene in the U.S. Curiously enough however, these are major components of the supposedly new concept of "Outcome Based Education" now being adopted by many public schools. What goes around comes around, they say.

As the communities grew the roads improved and transportation got easier. People were no longer as isolated in their hamlets and villages, better roads made towns closer and easier to get to. Eventually, the one room schools no longer served the needs of growing communities. In county after county they became consolidated into public schools in centralized towns. Teachers lost their intimate connection to the students and the community as classes grew larger and became segregated by age. Today we think of these schools as relics of a bygone era. We think we have outgrown the recitation bench and the blackboard. Still, maybe there is still something to be learned from the little one room school.

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