Communities fight to keep one-room schools

Posted: Wednesday, October 09, 2002

MCKENZIE COUNTY, N.D. -- Josh Rockeman has braved miles of rough, windy roads deep in the heart of the Badlands and battled high water on the Little Missouri River.

It's a daily routine for the 7-year-old: He needs to get to school.

Josh and his dad have had some close calls. In the winter, their truck has fallen through the ice. In the spring, the high water has lapped close to the cable car they use to cross the river and get Josh to the Stevenson School.

But there's one thing his dad, Keith Rockeman, fears more than the waters and roads: The possibility that his son's one-room school could be closed.

''Every year, they try to shut us rural schools down,'' the western North Dakota rancher said. ''And it bothers me. We have an excellent school. Like they say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'''

One consolidation proposal discussed by legislators would require all school districts to have a high school. That could force the closing of all eight of North Dakota's one-room schools, which have a total of 58 middle school students.

Tom Decker, the state director of school finance and reorganization, argues that school districts should have high schools to provide what the state considers to be the minimum amount of education.

Rural teachers, parents and students say they are frustrated at city dwellers who don't understand why the one-room schools are important. Defenders say it keeps kids closer to home, keeps them in the countryside and offers one-on-one attention.

One-room schoolhouses invoke images of rundown wooden buildings that lack plumbing, heat or electricity. Mary Johnson remembers the days when the school had an outhouse for a restroom and a wood stove for heat.

But her two children have four computers, Internet access, a microwave, television and a VCR at the Stevenson School.

Teachers concede that one room schoolhouses have their drawbacks.

Fifth-grader Luscious Town-send said she misses having a gym, a stepping squad and a basketball team -- things she had in her old school in Milwaukee.

''There isn't much socialization,'' concedes Karen Goldsberry, her teacher at Squaw Gap.

The teachers in McKenzie County try to make up for that by taking the children ice skating or to student assemblies about 30 miles away in Sidney, Mont. The county's three schools even have joint holiday parties.

Stevenson School teacher Jan Bergstrom said students also may be at a disadvantage if their teacher is weak in a particular subject. But she said the small size can be an advantage because the one-on-one time is better.

At Squaw Gap, there are two adults -- a teacher and an aide -- for seven students.

Defenders of the school say the students are in a setting that forces them to work with children of different ages. The older children, they say, take it upon themselves to jump in to help them.

Keith Rockeman said he and other parents will not give up on their schools anytime soon.

''This is where I live,'' Rockeman said.

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