Sunday, April 23, 2006

Today's One-Room School House: Good For Kids?

Mrs. Cornelius tells us that one of the last functioning one-room school houses is under threat:
Go slow when you drive through Croydon, N.H. It's a tiny place with a general store, a town hall, one church and a red brick, one-story school. Croydon's school was built in 1780 and has been in continuous operation ever since. But change is coming. It's a matter of growth.

Most of America's one-room schools are threatened with closure because of lack of population. Croydon might lose its school because it has too many people.

Today, only first-, second- and third-graders attend Croydon Village School. From fourth grade on, they take a bus to Newport, the next town down the highway.

Citizens of Croydon are happy with the arrangement and support it with their tax dollars. At a town meeting every March, they scrutinize the school budget line by line. Lifelong resident Harry Newcomb sums up a prevailing attitude: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
I like a slice of Americana as much as the next Wonk. The notion of a one-room school house evokes powerful images (which may or may not be grounded in fact) of simpler, more wholesome times. But what was (and is) the real reason behind the existence, then and now, of nearly all one-room school houses?

It was to save money. Education on the cheap. The paradigm was simple: cram as many kids as possible (usually the economically less-advantaged) of differing ages into a small single-room building, add one teacher, and call it "public education."

Communities with one-room school houses avoided the unpleasantness of paying higher taxes (almost exclusively on real property) in order to finance additional teachers and classrooms.

As for the situation in Croydon, in today's standards-based model of public education, is it really such a good idea to have childen (of differing ability levels) from three grades competing for the attention of one teacher?

The one-room school house may actually be a viable instructional model for those children who are responsible, motivated, and have plenty of support in the home, but what about kids who have special needs or are from family backgrounds that are less supportive?

If the community wants to keep its one-room school house, that's fine. As long as the folks in Croyden bear in mind that it's their children who may very well pay the price for their insistance on retaining a charming holdover from the days when America didn't have to compete in a global economy.

Are there cases where the one-room setting may be appropriate? Certainly a good case can be made for the single-room school house located in the remote settlement of Angle Inlet, Minnesota.

This community, which is on a peninsula that juts several miles into the Lake of the Woods, is the most northerly settlement in the 48 contiguous states and is completely surrounded by Canadian territory. The place is snowed-in several months each year. The one-room school house (which is Minnesota's last) serves from 8-12 students, some of which live on nearby islands. We visited Angle Inlet a few years ago
and posted about it here.
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