Capturing the magic of the one-room school in Montana | Montana

In early spring, the morning sun casts long shadows across the vast open land of Glenn, a small ranching community in the Southwest’s Pioneer Mountains Montana.

On Schoolhouse Road, where the pavement meets gravel, clouds of dust cloud my view as I head toward Reichle School, a two-room schoolhouse with two teachers and 15 students.

I have been a professional photographer in Montana for over 20 years and some places keep calling me; I was last here on assignment in 2013. On this return trip, I hope to learn more about the rural school experience, especially in light of the many challenges children face in American schools.

  • Top: Teacher Becky Jensen, right, and teacher Callie Miller before the service outside Reichle School in Glenn, Montana, on March 20, 2024; student Jeff Rhodes during a band rehearsal and a photo of former student Chris Rieber in a Reichle School memory book, on April 11, 2024; archery lesson with teacher Leah Tucker-Helle in Reichle on March 20, 2024.

When I arrived at Reichle, my memory of it matched exactly like a stroke placed on the original photograph. Everything looks the same: the old red facade, the old-fashioned carousel, the majesty of the mountain backdrop. Even teacher Becky Jensen, who has worked at the school for 25 years, is in place.

When she greets me at the front door, I linger for a moment, feeling like a child once again held under a good spell. Like Glinda of Oz, the Good Witch of the North, Jensen leads me to the students reading outside at a picnic table with teacher Leah Tucker-Helle.

Later, when I talk to Jensen on the playground, she agrees that the school is pretty much the same. It’s just that the students have changed.

IIn my hometown of Bozeman, about 130 miles from the Glen, I call the Gallatin Historical Museum looking for historic photos of two rural schools in the area, Malmborg and Springhill. Co-director Charlotte Mills answers the call and responds with the salty, unabashed confidence of a fifth-generation Bozeman native.

“You can go down and look,” she says, “but they’ll probably look the same as what you have.”

  • Teacher Alison Bramlett leads students inside at the start of the day at Malmborg School outside Bozeman, Montana, on February 27, 2024. The one-room school houses seven students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Current photos of the two schools – each established in the 1880s to serve farming families – are true to their original identities: Malmborg, with its octagonal structure and barn (where the children once housed their horses), and Springhill, with its charming white exterior and two front doors (previously used as separate entrances for boys and girls).

Today, Malmborg operates as a one-room kindergarten through eighth grade school with seven students – and one dog. Springhill is a two-room school with two teachers and 15 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

  • Top: Teacher Alison Bramlett works one-on-one with a student at Malmborg School on Feb. 27, 2024; student Davin Krushenski works on a lesson while holding one of the baby chicks their teacher is introducing to the curriculum on March 31, 2024; student Marley Cleman works independently on February 27, 2024; Marley enjoys some quiet reading time on March 21, 2024.

AIn the museum, in addition to photographs, I find newspaper articles about rural schools dating back to 1970 with telling headlines and dates, including 1988’s “Hard Work Rewards One-Room School” in Bozeman Daily Chronicle and 1992’s “Springhill School Students, Teacher Appreciate Family Atmosphere” in High Country Independent press.

Also, an online search reveals a national profile for Montana school buildings—among other things, a 2023 NPR story, “One-room schoolhouses are still a lifeline for rural communities,” which reported that Montana had the largest concentration of rural schools in the United States.

As I sit in the museum’s research room, among old photos and worn newspaper clippings, I realize that many of the school stories are similar, with narratives celebrating common ideals: family atmosphere, older mentors, community, underachiever… ratio of teachers and creative curricula. But what about the downsides for students—like less social interaction and fewer opportunities for extracurricular activities, team sports, band, and choir?

  • A student lowers the Montana flag at the end of the day at Springhill School, a two-room, two-teacher, 15-student kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Belgrade, Montana, on April 2, 2024.

Also, in a world of a 24-hour news cycle with content updated moment by moment, why does the country school story never get old?

Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, 82, has some thoughts. She was Gallatin County Schools Superintendent from 2003 to 2015 with oversight of local rural schools. Fitzgerald says there has always been unrest in the world, but today, with online connectivity, children are more vulnerable.

“With all the technology devices that kids have, with all the things like TikTok and Instagram, I think we have a different kid in education now than we’ve ever had,” she says.

“I think Florida and their stance on TikTok for kids is right,” she added, referring to recent legislation banning children under the age of 14 from creating social media accounts.

Fitzgerald continues, “I’m not a fan of social media. In the village school, you put away the devices and talk to each other. You go out on the playground and play with each other.”

Gallatin County’s current superintendent, John Nielsen, said it’s difficult to measure and compare screen use — including TikTok — between students in traditional and rural schools.

But he spoke of one aspect of country schools that resonates with me forever: “I would say the beauty of a small country school is that all the students do different things [in the classroom]. Or they’re doing the same thing on different levels and so there’s all this space to allow them to be who they are.

“To me,” Nilsson says, “education is 100 percent about relationships, and being a great teacher means you’re connected in some way to every student.”

Given Nielsen’s definition, it seems like simple math to conclude that in a rural school—where there are fewer children per teacher, one full-day teacher, and consecutive years with that teacher—there is more time to build a relationship.

But the equation is not always true. Nielsen, formerly an elementary teacher in a traditional classroom, is realistic when he says there are public school teachers who connect with every student and rural school teachers who don’t.

Finally, I address my questions to the students. When I ask what was unique about their rural school experience, it’s not easy for them to see without hindsight. For example, a 12-year-old in Springhill answers, “Fridays are off.”

“Yes,” I say. “I used to say I loved PE the most.”

“But you probably didn’t get Fridays off.”

OReichle’s former student, farmer Chris Rieber, has a flashback. For him, the rural school experience is more than just a Friday off. For Riber, it’s about quality education and continuing the family legacy: Riber’s father, sister, brother and son all attended the school. Present today are his daughters Reagan and Christian.

At Reichle, on the playground, while I’m taking pictures, I hear a child in my periphery. “I feel so free!” he shouts as he flies high on the swings.

Maybe I’m romanticizing, but from where I stand, here in a country school in remote Montana, I can see that the simple joy of swinging—of rising and falling, back and forth, over and over—hasn’t changed.

Perhaps, I think, this is the fresh take on the history of the country school: despite the world, it remains – mostly – the same.

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