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Small schools fading from countryside

Population drops in rural areas

BASSETT, Neb. -- Twenty-five miles off the main highway, deep in a cradle of sand dunes bound together by prairie grass, a one-lane ribbon of asphalt southeast of town ends abruptly at a barbed-wire fence.

Cattle roam on one side, and on the other sits a school that's in danger of becoming a relic in this wide-open, north-central Nebraska region that is among the most sparsely populated in the country.

In teacher Nickie Ebert's classroom, she tells a second-grade boy, "Treat people the way you'd want to be treated." She doesn't fight for his attention; only two other pupils are in her class -- a kindergartner and a third grader.

Teacher Staci Shafer, working in the school's only other classroom, also has perfect attendance on this fall day: two girls -- an eighth grader and a fourth grader.

Those five children make up the total student body at the 120-year-old Pony Lake School.

Class photos in an album chronicle the school's past and may give a clue to the future. In 1988, there were 23 faces; 16 three years later; 14 in 1995.

"There's always concern we're going to close," Shafer said.

Shafer and many rural Nebraskans for years have watched people leave, businesses dry up , and the number of farms and ranches dwindle. In some places, small schools are among the few remaining symbols of vitality and community identity, providing hope for the future while acting as reminders of the past.

An anomaly in some states, they remain a pillar of education systems in some, such as Nebraska and Montana, that have remote regions where cattle have long outnumbered people.

But populations in rural areas of those and other states are dipping to levels where there are few, and sometimes no students . A school in the same county as Pony Lake closed this year when its attendance dropped to a lone student.

In Montana, small country schools are drying up like the state's drought-plagued pastures. About 100 have closed over the past decade and "the rate of decrease has accelerated," said Claudette Morton, director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance.

When Kim Olind attended Alzada school in southeastern Montana in the late 1970s, there were about 20 children. This year, for the first time, the school did not open. "It's sad," said Olind, president of the school board.

Montana has more one-room schools -- commonly defined as those with one teacher and the smallest subset of country schools -- than any other state in the country, according to Neenah Ellis, an author and radio producer who spent a year researching one-room schools. Nebraska is second.

About 24,000 one-room schools existed in 1959; 840 in 1984. Ellis estimates 300 remain.

Some small schools are fighting more than dwindling population.

After years of debate about their plight, the Nebraska Legislature last year voted to dissolve Pony Lake and other elementary-only districts and merge them with adjoining K-12 districts. The law did not close the schools, but instead gave the boards of the larger districts that absorbed the elementary-only districts the choice of whether they should close.

Supporters of the schools reacted emotionally to passage of the law, and voters repealed it Nov. 7. But whether the districts will come back is unclear.

That's because the districts were dissolved months before the November vote. Small-schools supporters recently complained in court that doing away with the districts before the vote violated their due process and voting rights.

A judge disagreed, saying that supporters failed to get enough signatures to suspend the law. That decision was appealed and the Legislature is expected to revisit the controversial issue of whether to recreate the districts.

Supporters of the merger said the schools were too expensive and K-12 boards should decide their fates. In some places, where such schools exist closer to towns, some alleged that white families used them to segregate their children from Hispanics.

Ron Raikes, the state senator who introduced the controversial law, cited statistics showing some K-12 districts in towns with large Hispanic populations had hundreds of students who spoke English as a second language while outlying elementary-only schools had few or none.

And US Representative Thomas Osborne said during his unsuccessful bid for governor that he had seen "cases where the cause of segregation has been advanced" by the small schools.

Supporters tout the attention children get in the schools. But the attention can be expensive.

The average, per-pupil cost of educating students in Nebraska is $8,500, according to the state education department. By comparison, the per-pupil cost at Pony Lake was $13,300 last year.

Trudy Nolles, whose fourth-grade daughter Katie attends Pony Lake, is among the parents who are convinced their children excel in the intimate environments.

"I don't mean to brag, but [Katie] is a fourth-grader reading on a ninth-grade level," Nolles said.

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