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As of 2011, There Were 24 Country Schools Still Open In South Dakota

Ideal, South Dakota

November 15, 2022

April 15, 2011 03:15 PM

Instead of taking the school bus to and from school each day, Larry Hasz, of rural Loomis, rode his pony.

"I just had a long rope and I would tie him up in the road ditch," he said.

It's one of Hasz's many vivid memories from his elementary school days, spent at the rural Liberty School three miles west of Loomis. Hasz spent his days with students in various grades from kindergarten through eighth in a 20-by-24-foot, one-room structure.

"In the spring, we'd have a field day down at Hitchcock Park. There were softball games, we had potato sack races and three-legged races and just plain footraces. And at Christmas, we always put on a Christmas program," he said.

The days of one-room country schoolhouses are fading, and there are only two dozen still operating in the state. Societal changes and financial woes have forced many to close.

According to South Dakota Department of Education records, during the 2009-2010 school year there were 24 one- and two-teacher schools in the state, excluding Hutterite colony schools. There are 152 school districts in the state.

"The country schools served a real need years ago. They were vital with a larger agriculture population," said Melody Schopp, South Dakota secretary of education. "As the population declined in rural areas, it became a financial issue."

South Dakota reached its peak with one-room schoolhouses in 1916, with 5,011 in operation, said Charles Woodard, of Brookings, co-author of the book "One-Room Country School." In the early 1930s, that number decreased to 4,731. In the mid-1940s, 3,599 were open. By the turn of the century, there were only 50 rural schoolhouses operating in South Dakota.

Although few are left, rural schools still serve a purpose in more spread-out school districts, Schopp said.

Witten and Wood, located in the Colome Consolidated School District, still operate rural schools. Witten, which is 15 miles east of Winner, has 14 students, while Wood, 65 miles west of Colome, educates 28 students. Students are in grades kindergarten through eighth.

The district does not bus students from those small communities to Colome, making it more difficult to transport students to the larger, public schools and creating a need for the smaller, rural school buildings.

Small and successful

Mary Elder, the elementary principal in the Colome district, said the country schools have offered positive opportunities for students.

"There's a better student-to-teacher ratio. They get to know the students and understand what their learning needs are," she said. "There's a lot of cooperation and a lot of communication between (them)."

It's those qualities, among others, that Hasz appreciated during his years at Liberty School.

"A lot of the older students helped the younger students. We didn't do their homework for them, but if they were reading or something and asked what a word was, we'd tell them," Hasz said.

When Hasz first began school in 1949, there were five students. They shared the same teacher. By the time he was in the eighth grade, there were 14 students.

His school day started with 15 minutes of music in the morning, followed by reading and arithmetic. A lunch break was held at noon. In the afternoon, they had language arts, history and geography, with recesses sprinkled in throughout the day.

"Sometimes I do wonder how those teachers did it, doing all eight grades at once," Hasz said.

But the method worked. And like Witten and Wood, the Cheyenne and Milesville schools in Haakon County have kept their rural schools thriving. Elementary principal for the two schools, Keven Morehart, said the county had 13 rural schools at one point. Six years ago, four were still open, but two closed because of a lack of students.

"It's very similar in style to years ago. They still go put up the flag every morning. The teacher teaches different grade levels at different times," Morehart said.

Many of the positive qualities of rural schools are still alive and well in Haakon County. Older students still help the younger students, for example.

"They become strong, independent workers. They become self-motivated," Morehart said. "They have to do their work."

Old schools, new methods

The country schools in Haakon County incorporate new methods of education, too. Both schools have computers, and this past year, Milesville installed a smart board -- the same technology used in the Phillip Elementary School.

Cheyenne has five students enrolled from grades second through eighth. Milesville has 14 students enrolled in grades kindergarten through eighth.

Morehart said with such a long distance to travel into Phillip -- some students would have to commute 50 miles -- keeping the rural schools open makes sense.

Meade County operates six rural schools. The classes are conducted in modular homes with one teacher and a teacher's aide.

The Meade School District is 2,500 square miles. To be transported into town each day, it would be 30 to 40 miles for some students.

"The district is more understanding of the fact these (schools) are needed to provide educational services to the kids that live out here," said Bev Rosenboom, elementary principal in Meade County.

Woodard said the public schools today try to achieve the same educational benefits as rural schoolhouses, but it's difficult.

"Greater numbers are involved and the pace of life is much faster. There are more distractions," he said.

Hasz added, "It's a whole different way of learning. Nowadays, you don't get control of a classroom."

But even with positive learning opportunities, the schools are struggling to keep open.

Two years ago, the Wood and Witten schools faced the threat of being shut down. The school district didn't think it was cost-effective to keep the two schools open.

"They thought they would be saving money," said Elder, the elementary principal in Colome.

Financial concerns

Money is the primary challenge for rural schools. But those that are in charge of operating them accept that challenge.

"It's certainly higher than in a public school with 300 kids in a building," Rosenboom said. "But that's a commitment the district has made. The cost factor is something we live with."

Elder agrees, and said when the Colome District wanted Wood and Whitten to consolidate and close the schools, the parents opted out of the state tax freeze and paid more in taxes to keep the schools open.

"By the time they drove into Winner or White River or bought another house, it would cost more than paying to opt out."

Traveling expenses do add up. Since most of the rural schools do not bus students, and in order to offer counseling services, music and computer education, rural schools in Meade County, Witten and Wood pay for a traveling teacher.

"Then it becomes a financial and not an educational issue. At many times, academically, students would do very well (in rural schools," Schopp said.

Strong community support, along with a willing drive, has kept the few remaining rural schools in the state open.

"Persistence. I think that's it," Elder said. "The state has been trying to close us for a long time, and they've come close a couple of times."

Although the Witten and Wood schools follow a different educational pattern, it doesn't mean the students aren't learning, Elder said.

"We've always made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) with our test scores and we've been named distinguished schools. We provide a good education, but we're just very small and way out in the boonies.

"They don't think it works, but it does."

'A good way of life'

Aside from funding, a decline in the agricultural population contributed to the closure of rural elementary schools.

Norma C. Wilson, co-author of "One-Room Country School," said the decline began in the 1930s, after the Great Depression.

"There had been terrible droughts and dust storms. That's really when the decline began."

Woodard added that the increased use of automobiles and improved road conditions caused some schoolhouses to close, too. With transportation improving, consolidations began to occur.

Unlike the financial struggles of today that rural schools face, Hasz recalls other challenges of the one-room schoolhouses.

"Our school did not have running water and it did not have an indoor toilet," he said.

The teacher paid one family $2 a month to bring a three-gallon can of water to school each day. That was the students' drinking and hand-washing water.

"We were very frugal with our hand-washing water," Hasz said.

The schoolroom was cold, too. The teacher had to arrive early in the morning to start the wood-burning stove.

"Today they call off school if it's 20-below," Hasz said. "Back then, we never called off school."

Among the rural schoolhouses that have closed, some of the buildings have been put to good use. Wilson said some have been converted into homes, such as the Spring Hill School that was in Clay County, while others have been restored into museums or used as living history classrooms to teach students today how classes were taught in the early 1900s.

"Some are headquarters for township governments. Some have been turned into storage sheds or garages. Some, of course, are just sitting empty and boarded up," Woodard said.

Hasz went on to attend high school in Mitchell, but he appreciated his elementary education.

"I still think it was a good way of life," he said.

Note: looks like the Witten school is now closed. I think it is true that once a community loses its school, it's decline accelerates. Same as if it loses its post office. Lose both and ....

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