What do President Herbert Hoover, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Alan Shephard (the first man in space) all have in common? At some point in their educations, they all attended school in a one-room schoolhouse. How ironic that Shephard, a hero of modern times, credits part of his education to a one-room schoolhouse, a symbol of America’s rural past. It may be ironic, but not surprising. After all, one-room schoolhouses provide many benefits to students, including small student/teacher ratios, consistent teaching from year to year, mentoring opportunities between older and younger students, and lessons in self-motivation.
You don’t have to be a fan of Little House on the Prairie to know that one-room schoolhouses were usually located in rural settings and had only one teacher responsible for educating every student. What you may not know, however, is that one-room schoolhouses are not necessarily a thing of the past. According to a 2005 report on NPR, Holding On in Rural America (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5064420), in 1919 there were approximately 190,000 one-room schools across the country. By 2005, there were just under 400 left with most of those remaining schools concentrated in a few states in the western U.S. Sadly, in its August 31 article, Lessons from the One-Room School House (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903352704576540453011452540.html), the Wall Street Journal put the number of one-room schoolhouses at under 300, quite a drop in just 6 years.
One of these last one-room schoolhouses is located in Doss, TX. Doss is located about half an hour northwest of Fredricksburg and 11 miles off the nearest state highway. With about a dozen houses in town, one stop sign, two churches and a country store and post office, Doss is the epitome of a one-room schoolhouse town. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Jill Pilcher, one of the school’s two teachers and a former Doss student. The 125 year old Doss school is technically a two-room schoolhouse with one classroom for pre-K through 3rd grade and a second for 4th through 8th grades. Pilcher, who teaches the older students, is joined by teacher Julie Stracke, who covers the younger grades. This year, Doss began the school year with 28 students ranging in age from pre-K through 7th grade.
As Pilcher described to us how she organizes her day and multiple lesson plans, she also gave us some insight into what makes these schoolhouses so special. First, with anywhere from 6 to 16 students in each classroom, the teachers have a good understanding of each child’s strengths and weaknesses. This understanding makes the teachers better able to provide focused instruction tailored to each student’s specific needs. Second, students learn the art of self-motivation, i.e. they must learn to stay on task without the teacher’s constant supervision. In Pilcher’s older classroom, she will have students from four different grades working on separate assignments at the same time. The individual student must be able to complete his or her own work while Pilcher focuses on other grades. Third, older students learn to look out for and help younger students whenever possible. Pilcher says that, often, she does not even have to ask older students for help. They will volunteer to read to younger students or help those who are confused or struggling with a concept. Finally, students learn to take on additional responsibilities both inside and outside the classroom. Not surprisingly, Doss does not have any full-time maintenance personnel. As a result, students take turns with cafeteria, flag and trash duty. Older kids and younger kids work together throughout the week on their assigned tasks.
The proof is in the pudding. Over the past three school years, Doss’ students have earned either a Recognized or Exemplary rating from the Texas Education Agency. Obviously, none of Parker’s schools are one-room schoolhouses. However, we think all schools, private and public alike, can learn some important lessons from schools like Doss. Not that we need it, but one-room schoolhouses remind us of the benefit of a small student-teacher ratio. We need only look to many of our public school bretheran to see the difficulties created by growing classroom sizes. Smaller classroom sizes make for more meaningful teacher/student interaction and more focused instruction. One-room schoolhouses also remind us of the benefits students receive from taking more responsibility for themselves and others. We as parents, teachers and administrators should not be afraid to challenge students to become independent thinkers and self motivators, whatever form this may take (i.e. completing more challenging work on their own, partnering with other students to complete tasks or partnering with younger students in a mentoring program).
Unfortunately, we know that the one-room schoolhouse will become even more uncommon as most states face budget cuts and districts move to consolidate and cut costs. Couple that with America’s general population shift to more urban areas, and we may be seeing the end of an era. Even so, we at Parker will continue to root for the one-room schoolhouse and the positive learning opportunities they provide their students. Who knows, maybe some great leader of tomorrow is studying right now in Doss or another small rural school. Alternatively, maybe they are studying in one of your schools and just waiting for a teacher or older student to encourage, inspire or challenge them in some new way. Either way, let’s make sure that the educational ideals of America’s rural past — hard work, self motivation, looking out for others — remain intact, during today’s modern times.