A two-room schoolhouse. It almost folded once, but the community kept it going - and the children are benefited
Ellensberg, Wash. — MORNING begins at the Damman School when some lucky little kid gets to ring the school bell, which gives off a harsh clang-clang from the heights of its belfry (``I can remember, when I was going here, it was such an honor,'' says Marsha Gregory Smith, now the school's superintendent). Then all the children come rushing up the wide wooden steps and pour into either Mrs. Butler's class (kindergarten through second grade) or Mrs. Pratt's class (grades 3 through 6). The Damman is a two-room country school; it has been around since the year after Washington became a state. And despite its four new computers and its proximity to the good-sized university town of Ellensberg, it still has an idyllic, Anne of Green Gables feel to it.
One windy day at the very tail-end of the school year, after Mrs. Butler's 14 students have been greeted, asked how they are, and the flag has been saluted, the day really kicks off with Show and Tell.
``Boys and girls, I got a fishing box from my grandpa that has four things that will take fishing hooks out of a fish's mouth,'' says Shane, who has red hair and freckles. ``Also our cat had baby kittens, tiger striped and spotted.''
``Boys and girls, this is my National Geographic I got last week,'' says Brad, holding it up nicely so everybody can see.
``This is my new coloring book that I got,'' says Whitney, beaming, stabbing the book briefly in the air and then marching back to her cubby to return it to its place.
Mrs. Butler's classroom has the ideal view for daydreaming. You can look out the window and see green cottonwoods and good central Washington farmland and an occasional red-winged blackbird. But daydreaming is not on the agenda. All the kids have their work assignments for the day on a long white strip of paper taped to their desks. And pretty soon they are hard at it, with large, laborious sweeps of their pencils and some muttering to assist concentration.
``Fix those; those are backwards,'' says Mrs. Butler kindly, leaning over Pat, who is working at a rather tatty-looking book. After much energetic erasing, he produces a large, wobbly, painful, but correct ``2.''
``That's right. And your `5' is supposed to go that way,'' says Mrs. Butler. Pat lets out a loud sigh.
At noon, there is a strong smell of peanut butter in Mrs. Butler's classroom, as people eat their lunches at their desks. ``The kindergartners go home at noon - much to their indignation. They're just dying to see what goes on in the afternoon - the mysterious afternoon,'' Mrs. Butler says laughing.
``The first group I had as kindergarteners are now all fourth-graders,'' says Mrs. Butler. ``They come over and visit their old teacher. The first year, when they were in the third grade, it was kind of funny; they'd say `I remember this, I remember that.' I said, `It was just last year that you guys were in here.'''
She says it isn't as hard as you'd think, teaching three grades at once, because in any classroom you're going to have a range of learning levels. ``It's neat to watch 'em grow from year to year,'' she says. ``If they're having social or learning problems, it's easier to plan ahead.''
The school has 27 students this year, but it wasn't always this thriving. ``In the late '60s and early '70s, we just about fizzled out,'' says Mrs. Smith, who is superintendent of just this one school, as it is the only one in its district.
``There wasn't community support. They felt then that children were going to lose out socially by going to a small country school.''
``When I finished, there were six kids here; I was the only sixth-grader,'' she says. ``It was just like family. Of course, one of them was my little brother!''
The decline in enrollment was reversed in the early 1980s. ``All of a sudden people started registering their kids,'' she says. Some of the interest was because of drug problems and peer pressure in the bigger schools, some of it a recognition that a small school, though lacking sports facilities and a large library, could offer a lot of individual attention.
``We were so far ahead academically when we went to town that we had a whole year to adjust,'' says Mrs. Smith. ``Kids who can move faster can move ahead; they're not held back by the other 30 kids in the class. Those who are a little slower don't have the pressure to keep up with the other kids; they have the opportunity to excel where they are. And they still get to play with the buddies the same age.''
Over in Mrs. Pratt's room, five students are learning about verbs by giving examples of their own activities. ``I play. I eat,'' says Jodie.
``I get in trouble every day,'' says Jake, a laughing look in his eyes.
Mrs. Pratt says that when she came here 13 years ago, she was the only teacher. ``It was difficult to go brush my hair,'' she says. Most of the schools like this that still exist are in physically isolated parts of Washington, according to Mrs. Pratt.
The Damman School, on the other hand, has an open enrollment policy with the Ellensberg school district, and Central Washington State University in Ellensberg is a resource for specific problems, such as speech and behavioral problems.
Mrs. Pratt feels that she can catch a child more quickly than she could in a larger group, if he's not learning a concept. ``If most teachers had a wish, it would be to have fewer students,'' she says.
``If they have 30 students, they know what those kids need, but they can't do it with 30 kids in the classroom.''
If you go to a school like this, you remember your teacher all your life. ``I had a fabulous teacher; she ruled with an iron hand, but she was so sweet. I've got a card at home I've got to send her,'' says Mrs. Smith.
Her father, Glenn Gregory, fondly remembers one very strict teacher who taught grades 5 through 8 (the school went up to the eighth grade then.) The teacher had caught the kids playing marbles for keeps. ``He said, you can play for keeps if I can play with you,'' recalls Mr. Gregory ruefully. ``I tell you, that guy was a heck of a shot. By the second week, our interest in playing marbles kind of waned.''
Mr. Gregory, a farmer, has been on the school board since the early '50s. He has always felt strongly about not consolidating the school, even when there were only four students here. ``A lot of them had the idea that if it wasn't big, it couldn't do the job,'' he says. ``People in town started to develop country estates. They had no interest in the community; their businesses and interests were in town. The farming community was running out of kids; children were growing up and moving on.''
The Gregory family has a long and intricate connection with the Damman School. Mr. Gregory's grandfather was on the school board when the indoor plumbing and gym were added, in 1916; he and his five children all went there, and Mrs. Smith's two children are there now.
``Some people don't have to have roots, but I do,'' says Mr. Gregory.``I come from a family that has roots; I suspect, to a degree, that attitude is born and bred into me.... We're not backward in any way. Just because we've got a hookup with the past, doesn't mean we're out of date.''
Says Mrs. Smith, ``I wouldn't have traded this experience for anything in the world.''