Symbols of community, virtue. America's Country Schools

The names say so much! Sunny Crest School. Harmony School. Good Intent. Fairview. Prairie Rose. Apple Pie. Each inscribed by parents on humble, sturdy, one-room structures. For most of us the time and place of the country school are past. But its history is our history, dignified in function and purpose. The single-room worlds remain strong icons at the heart of our national memory, permanent as any church spire piercing the New England sky.

Just the thought of country schools evokes ``simpler times, surer values, clearer dedication, and homely virtue,'' says Fred E. H. Schroeder, who began his teaching career years ago in Wisconsin's little Sunny Crest School and is now at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

``America's Country Schools'' (the Preservation Press, 292 pages, $18.95), by Andrew Gulliford, is a magnificent endeavor. It teaches us much about our rural legacy. Not only does it place country schools in the larger historical framework of American education, but its pages till the fertile soil of the communal and educational ideals that took root in universal and free public education.

And if sometimes it appears we treat these old structures with the hushed respect of churches, so be it. ``Near Pleasant Lake, N.D., the Grand Harbor School still had an original bookcase well stocked with many early edition textbooks in August 1980,'' Gulliford notes. ``On the blackboard were the dates of every precinct election and the number of votes cast since June 1960. In 20 years no one had smudged or erased the chalk.''

They were the haven for literaries and debates, the site of political events and church services -- ``. . . when 15 miles was a long way to travel in one day with a team of horses, [and] the schoolhouse was the social center of the community,'' Gulliford writes.

It doubled as hospital and voter registration booth, polling place and dance hall. On the frontier, schoolhouses could serve as forts and shelters from Indian attack.

As late as 1913 half of the schoolchildren in the United States were enrolled in one of the country's 212,000 one-room schools. Today, there are only about 835 one-room schools.

To his credit, throughout ``America's Country Schools'' Gulliford is diligent in preventing the romantic lens of memory from distorting what actually went on. The good and the bad, the sometimes hard, the always hopeful, are accurately recorded.

``Many children suffered under short-tempered, ill-trained teachers forced to teach in buildings in which no self-respecting farmer would have kept his cows. Yet, other communities took pride in their schools and hired competent teachers at competitive wages,'' writes the author, himself a former fourth-grade teacher from Silt, Colo. And with the exception of the cows, what he says is as true today as then.

Gulliford pricks the myth of the little red schoolhouse and egalitarian education for rural blacks. He shows it to be almost totally false. Black children were lucky to have any schools at all.

No story of country schools would be complete without a close look at the lives of teachers. They served as moral examples for the community and could be fired, fairly or unfairly, for any breach of a community's code of conduct. Some of Gulliford's most colorful passages depict how men and women, mostly women, not only taught and disciplined students, they did all the janitorial work, doubled as nurses and counselors, and most likely lived in the back of the school. From facing down rattlesnakes in broom closets with the spring thaw to fending off ranch-hand bullies (or lovelorn cowboys), teachers had to be wise in the ways of the world.

At a time when the options for single women were few, teaching was a respectable, and often the only, option for meaningful employment.

Reflecting on his teaching in a one- room school years ago, Professor Schroeder writes in the foreword to Gulliford's book: ``The farther I travel from that quaint and fragrant beginning, the closer is my affinity to the goals of the resourceful and idealist rural teacher, for whom no subject, course or age was separated from its neighbors, and with whom the school day became an invitation to circles of experience, widening outward from the common room so that child, community, nature, books and imagination were unified in an adventure of growing and learning.''

``Rural people knew, however instinctively, that to lose their school meant to lose the focus of their community,'' says Gulliford. For a nation in the midst of a major education reform movement, his observation fits today's soul-searching about what schools should be and do -- whether they're in the city, the suburbs, or in rural America.

Country schools -- a legacy worth knowing, preserving, and cherishing.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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