As school systems across the United States struggle to cope with diminishing budgets and growing government mandates, one South Dakota community is fighting to keep a traditional model of education from disappearing.
At one time, almost every small rural community in the United States had a one-room schoolhouse, where students of all ages were taught together. But today, school districts are shutting down these historic learning centers to reduce costs and consolidate student populations.
Residents of Oral, South Dakota, met at the local firehouse recently to discuss the future of their community school, which dates back half-a-century. The local school district has advised parents that Oral School, which has two rooms and 20 students, will be closed at the end of the school year in order to reduce operating costs.
Community members questioned how much money that action would save, and pointed to the intangible benefits of keeping the school open. Nancy Hussey, whose family has attended Oral school for 3 generations, said, "They get a better education here than anywhere else. Kids learn how to play with other kids. Eighth-graders learn how to take care of little kids, be nice to them, to teach them things, and be their best friends. That's why we need our school. They don't learn that in big schools. They learn bullying in big schools and everything else. They need to stay in our little school."
Studies on the benefits of multi-age classroom education indicate that students taught in this model have better relationships with teachers, improved self-esteem, reduced peer pressure and better socialization skills, as well as higher academic achievement.
The 20 students at Oral School agree with that assessment, says eighth-grader Jessica Peters, whose experience at the school has made her want to be a teacher. And she says that even though her classmates range in age from 5 to 14, they still find common areas of interest. "Most of the kids there ranch or do stuff with horses. All the students have stuff in common. And everybody's nice." She compares it to a home.
That family atmosphere is one of the things John Zolnowski liked best about attending Oral School. Even after graduating from Harvard University, the software engineer recalls the almost individual attention he and his classmates received. Zolnowski says with the closure of Oral School, students would be losing a unique learning environment and classroom time, as they travel back and forth to a larger school in a community an hour away.
"You could better spend that time in the schoolroom, focusing on the schoolwork and then let the student go back to whatever other activities they do at home," he suggests, adding, "to steal an hour a day from a student for the purpose of transportation doesn't seem right to me. It seems to me that if the school district really needed to save money, they could find other ways of doing it that wouldn't negatively impact the folks out there at Oral."
But there might be no other realistic choice, according to former South Dakota State University professor John Miller. He also attended a one-room school and appreciates the benefits of multi-level education. But he points out that with the number of such small learning centers in South Dakota reduced from 5,500 at the beginning of the 20th century, to the handful that now remain, the one-room schoolhouse may be a model whose time has come and gone.
"Looking back to it from the future," he says, "we might [realize] … country schools obviously are, by and large, a thing of the past. So, I think a lot of the arguments for holding on to them now are more emotional and based on memory than they are on actual educational values."
Nonetheless, if a planned lawsuit doesn't keep the Oral two-room schoolhouse open, community members plan to form a home-schooling network to teach their children themselves, and continue to pass on the values and traditions they feel are a vital part of education.