By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
The Comptche one-room schoolhouse in Northern California, still in operation.
The teacher steps outside in the chilly morning. She rings the heavy cast-iron bell announcing that school is in session. Students of varying ages scamper in from the playground, line up at the door and solemnly enter the classroom like a scene from Little House on the Prairie.
You can still find scenes like this at a few one-room schoolhouses in California. But to reach them, you must sometimes travel down winding roads and visit towns where there are no traffic lights, no supermarkets and no cell phone reception.
A century ago there were more than 200,000 one-room schoolhouses in the United States, a number that dwindled to 335 in 2006, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Only about a dozen now operate in California. Some communities treasure them; others want them closed. In Napa, the state’s oldest single-room schoolhouse, established before the Civil War, is set to close its doors for good at the end of this school year. It’s a casualty of bad economic times.
Some leaders in Sacramento may consider them archaic and worth preserving only as historical landmarks. But those who teach in them believe they should be preserved as a part of our cultural heritage. After all, one-room schoolhouses are the foundation of American education.
Much has changed in one-roomers. For example, they now have computers — mostly dial-up — and students no longer get their knuckles rapped for bad behavior. Female teachers — once required to be single — have families. As for students, some have dreadlocks instead of braids. Things may have changed, but the pioneer spirit and sense of independence and pride that were once a hallmark of these schools can still be found today — in those who teach and those who learn inside these unique environments.
Wooden Valley Elementary School
Napa is known for its wineries and its bed-and-breakfasts. But it is also the home of Wooden Valley Elementary School, the state’s oldest one-room schoolhouse still in operation. Surrounded by vineyards and ranches, it is far from the main roads and the hustle and bustle of city life. The original building from 1870 stands in ruins behind the current building, constructed in the 1950s.
Inside the colorful classroom students are learning about quail. Their teacher, LeeAnn Ohlandt, plays birdcalls for the students.
“See how it sounds just like they are saying Chicago?” asks Ohlandt, a member of the Napa Valley Education Association. The children twitter because it sounds indeed like Chicago.
“Now you know what a quail call sounds like,” says Ohlandt. “I’m going to add birds.com to your approved website list.”
There are 23 children in the school. The K-5 population is diverse in age and ethnicity. With the help of Ohlandt and a classroom assistant, they all learn together in one big room and, for the most part, thrive.
“We have special-needs kids with physical, emotional and learning disabilities, but if you walk into my classroom, you’d never know,” says Ohlandt. “They are all treated the same, and I adapt my teaching to their needs.”
While some teachers would be terrified of teaching six grades at once, Ohlandt makes it seem easy after eight years of practice.
For English, students have common assignments, with younger students copying words and sentences and older students writing essays and paragraphs. During math, everyone works at their own pace.
“As long as you have the right materials, it doesn’t matter,” she explains. “We don’t refer to grade level. We just say, ‘This is your math level.’ When I pass out math practice, everyone has a different page because they are all working at different levels.”
The children work quietly and independently; if they are talking, they are usually helping one another. Many are working above grade level and score quite high on standardized tests, because there is no ceiling on what can be taught.
“It’s special and it’s different,” observes Ohlandt. “We have rules. If someone asks you for help, you say yes. If someone wants to join your group, you say yes. Someone once talked to them about bullying, but some of the kids didn’t know what bullying was. I have very few discipline problems.”
The school makes time for singing and dancing every day. She calls it “bonding time.”
“It’s a happy place,” says Ohlandt. “The kids have more freedom here than in a big school. They can go play in the garden; they can pick any flower they want; they can catch bugs; they can fly kites on windy days; they can jump on pogo sticks. Because we’re small and there’s lots of supervision, they have the freedom to do that kind of stuff.”
But that kind of freedom will come to an end this year when the school closes for good. Ohlandt gets teary when she talks about moving on. Students say they, too, will be sad to leave.
“You know everybody and can be friends with everybody, because here you are around them every second of the day,” explains Brandon Quade, 11. “I am sad that it is closing. But my sister likes middle school, and I’m sure I’ll like it, too.”
Former students have been coming to say goodbye and help Ohlandt pack. Among them is Foster “Scooter” Clark, who drops by wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Class of 1952” — and actually was in that class. He attended from first grade to eighth grade. When asked what it was like, he ponders the question for a spell.
“It’s like asking Geronimo what buffalo tastes like,” he finally answers. “It was all I knew. I think kids got — and still get — a better education in a one-room schoolhouse.”
Things were very different back then, he recalls. He and the other boys were allowed to bring guns to school, so they could hunt on the way home. They kept their guns — loaded — in the teacher’s car, which was unlocked. Nobody worried about it at all.
When asked how he feels about the school closing, he takes his time before answering. “I’m out of words,” he says finally. “It’s just a shame. That’s all I can say.”
Comptche Elementary School
When hippies moved to Comptche in the 1970s, established residents weren’t sure they could co-exist together in the rural community consisting of a post office, a tiny general store, a school, a church and little else. The tensions eventually worked themselves out as the newcomers with long hair became strong supporters of the Mendocino County community. Today, children and grandchildren of those growing up in the Age of Aquarius are among the 17 students in the one-room K-3 schoolhouse. They wear colorful clothing and hats, and some sport dreadlocks. Everyone goes without shoes to preserve the new carpet.
Judy Stavely has been at the school for 33 years. The teacher, beloved by the community, will retire this month. She will carry with her a treasure trove of memories.
In the early days, teaching was a family affair for Stavely, a member of the Mendocino Unified Teachers Association (MUTA). When she was hired at the site, then a K-5 school, Stavely shared the job with her former husband. Each taught three days a week while the other stayed home with the babies. Wednesday was an “overlap” day when they both taught and brought the babies to school. Eventually he went to teach at another one-room schoolhouse before retiring.
“It was kind of like a family business,” says Stavely. “We lived, breathed, ate and slept Comptche School. We had an old-fashioned letterpress, and children wrote poems and set the type to make printed poetry books. We went backpacking with students. That was back when we didn’t have No Child Left Behind, state standards and all of that.”
NCLB caused the school to make changes. Stavely began using state-approved textbooks and materials for teaching the state standards. This meant careful planning so there was time for field trips, art and music.
“I had been at this long enough to look at the state standards and know whether children were learning them from the projects we did,” says Stavely. “I hit a compromise: I would use the grade-level textbooks three days a week, and two days a week I would do the kinds of things I used to do.”
That includes singing, which happens every day at 11:30 a.m., hatching baby chicks in class, creating publications about fictional characters or “Charlie Books,” and making a dinosaur museum out of boxes.
The school has had four incarnations. The school formerly operated in a little white schoolhouse built in 1925, after the previous building burned down. It was sold and turned into a residence after failing to meet seismic standards. The current building was first a barn belonging to a neighboring farm. It was bought and turned into a bar called the Blue Rose, which became the school building when the bar was sold to the school district.
“People always ask me, ‘Don’t you feel lonely and isolated?’” says Stavely. “But the answer is no. To me, teaching school is like painting a picture or making a piece of music. You need quiet to think about it and shouldn’t be distracted to do it. I cannot imagine teaching a single grade; I think it would be really dull. There’s never a dull moment here; I’m juggling all the time.”
Stavely now teaches the children of former students; she fondly refers to them as her “grandstudents.” She will miss the community, but still has some plans to hang around Comptche occasionally, since she’s working with a local circus troupe, learning how to do aerial feats.
“Comptche is my spiritual home,” she says. “I love the community, but it’s time now to let someone else have fun in this job.”
Westport Village School
When Kathleen Murray rings the bell to call students to class at Westport Village School in Mendocino County, she is using the same bell that was used by the school’s teacher in 1896 to call students in from the schoolyard.
“It’s pretty amazing,” relates the Fort Bragg District Teachers Association member. “Everything is changing, but we can still hold on to a vestige of our roots in the town of Westport.”
If small class size is every teacher’s dream, Murray is truly in heaven. She has just four students — a third-grader, a fourth-grader and two fifth-graders. The school, located in a portable classroom, has three laptops, two regular computers, a video camera, an LCD projector and a garden.
The original schoolhouse sits up the hill from the current site and was converted into a private home. For many years after it closed the town was without a school. In 1990, Murray and her former husband decided to create a “small necessary rural school” under a state-funded program.
“I love working here,” says Murray. “It’s very unique and allows lots of different kinds of learning to take place on many different levels.”
Students, she says, learn subjects at the grade level where they are at academically instead of based on their age. She has third- and fourth-graders doing fifth-grade science work. She tries to teach “up” instead of down when it comes to ages and ability. Students usually rise to the occasion, and sometimes younger ones catch on to a concept before the older ones.
In some ways, Westport Village School is more like a family than a school. Staff and students eat breakfast and lunch together, and discuss healthy food choices, clear communication and respect for one another.
“You have closer relationships in a place like this than you would have in a large school. We talk to each other and interact in a way that seems to be missing in some families today. We have great conversations around the table, and we can be authentic with each other. You can’t hide anything here.”
Murray professes that sometimes she gets lonely for colleagues, and for this reason she has spent the past seven years driving over an hour and a half to mentor teachers in the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) program. She also attends conferences whenever she can.
“I love working with children because they are so in the moment,” she says. “By teaching children, I am always constantly learning about myself. I love teaching children because they keep me feeling alive and vital with their awesome energy.”
She hopes one-room schoolhouses will also stay in the present and not become extinct.
“I hope we can hold on to them and that they can be valued for being the root of where all education began. If they all disappeared, we’d have nothing to refer to when we talk about how education used to be.”
On the playground of Albion School, two students have a conversation about what it’s like to attend a one-room schoolhouse.
“I like it because it’s little,” says third-grader Amelia Aum. “I don’t like big schools. I’ve visited them, and I don’t like them much.”
“I went to a big school once, and it was kind of chaotic,” agrees her friend, Skye Starkweather, a second-grader. “There were kids running around screaming. And you didn’t know everyone. There were like 80,000 kids!”
Their teacher, Suzanne Jennings, points out that the school they visited in Mendocino had only 200 students.
“Well,” says Amelia, “it was a big school to us.”
It was also a big school for Jennings. During her career she has taught in three one-room schoolhouses including this K-3 campus in Albion, a small town in Mendocino County. She spent 17 years teaching in another called Forks of Salmon Elementary School, which had no public utilities.
“I love the creative freedom it offers,” says Jennings, a member of MUTA. “I love integrating the curriculum, because that’s the only way to make it work. Every day I feel like I’m putting pieces of a puzzle together. I like having latitude; I have the whole day if I need to shift things around, which lots of teachers can’t do.”
It is also “grueling” and can mean 12-hour days. But for Jennings, the freedom is worth it. She begins every morning by having her 22 students sit in a circle and talk. Communication is the key, she says, to classroom management and creating a sense of community.
“I can’t send a child to the principal, so it’s got to be dealt with here. If there’s a problem out on the playground, we talk about it. We are a school family, and we have to work it out. Today, a boy made fun of a new little girl from El Salvador. We immediately talked about that issue, and tomorrow we’ll continue that discussion in circle. I turn everything into a lesson, because it relates to what’s going on in their lives. They need to find solutions and creative ways to express themselves.”
Jennings, a teacher for 35 years, hails from Southern California and began her career in Santa Ana. But she says she always felt like a “fish out of water” until she taught in her first one-room schoolhouses in Forks of Salmon.
“Teaching in a one-room schoolhouse is not for everybody,” she says. “There is nothing easy about teaching multi-grades. But overall, it’s a beautiful way to teach and a beautiful way to learn.”
Rand Elementary School
You don’t have to go to South Africa to visit Johannesburg. There’s a small town by that name in Kern County in the mining district of the Rand Mountains. Serving six students there is Rand Elementary School.
“Last year was a boom year; we had eight kids,” jokes teacher Terry McGuire, a member of the Desert Area Teachers Association.
This is McGuire’s second year at the K-3 one-room schoolhouse built in 1972. After teaching at regular schools for 20 years she was ready for something different — and found it.
“I wanted to teach at a small school with a country feeling,” she explains. “I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder books and Little House on the Prairie.”
She has a kindergartner, two first-graders, two second-graders and a third-grader. Three are related, and if illness strikes, half the school’s population is out sick. Her principal is 20 miles away, and they communicate mostly by e-mail. Sometimes she gets lonely, like the Maytag repairman.
The best thing is that that her students get individual attention — lots of it.
“When you see a gap in their knowledge, you can pick up on it really fast, unlike when you have a class of 32,” she says. “With a class this small, you can tell what they know or don’t know. You don’t have to guess. I guess that’s the best part.”
Greenwood Elementary School
Greenwood School has been in operation since 1898. It burned down, was rebuilt about 25 years ago, and rose from the ashes. Recently slated for closure at the end of this year due to dwindling funds, residents hope that it will rise again.
“It’s been a blow to the community,” says teacher Kathy White, a member of MUTA. “It’s a big deal. The school has been in continuous operation for over 100 years. It might reopen someday if the population increases. Last year it was supposed to close, but the community rallied and it was kept open. I had hoped it would stay open.”
In many ways, Elk residents kept the school viable. With little staffing, parents and community volunteers stepped in when needed and have been a constant support.
The K-3 school has eight students, but a surge of kindergartners was expected next fall. Now, some students will likely be bused to Albion School, where White will co-teach with Suzanne Jennings.
Having a background in special education was excellent preparation for teaching multi-grades, says White. “I’m very comfortable having kids working at their own pace, feeling good about how they are progressing and not comparing themselves to others. Everyone has their own unique learning style, and I try to make kids confident about who they are.”
While some people see multi-age classrooms as a negative, White disagrees. “It helps to build character among students,” she says. “That’s one of most valuable aspects of one-room schools. Older students read to younger students and younger students learn from older students. Students form their identity in relationship to a real community and also in the larger community where they live. They learn everybody is important.” More