One-Room Schoolhouse

The longest-running US school of its kind has been a fixture in Franklin, Mass., for over 150 years

FEB. 11, 1833: Franklin residents who live in the Centre School District vote 22 to 8 in favor of building a new, red-brick schoolhouse.Oct. 4, 1991: "Good morning!" yells kindergarten teacher Cindy Douglas cheerfully, welcoming the first of two batches of bus-borne kindergarten pupils as they step out onto the front walkway and file into the oldest red-brick, one-room schoolhouse in continuous operation in the United States. The two classes that between now and next June will pass through Brick School are the 200th group of youngsters to begin their public-school education at this site; although the Brick School was built in 1833, it stands on a foundation that dates back to the original wooden schoolhouse built around 1792. This day begins with the most important of ceremonies: collecting milk money and determining whether children buying lunch want their pizzas with cheese or pepperoni. Mrs. Douglas patiently makes her way among her 20 charges: "Brought your lunch or buying? White milk or chocolate? Cheese or pepperoni?" After one pupil's replies, the teacher casts a sideways glance at a visitor, wrinkles her nose, and whispers, "Pizza and chocolate milk - ugh!" But she dutifully puts in the order. She phones the cafeteria at nearby Davis Thayer Elementary School with her tally: 11 cheese, two pepperoni Today is Teddy Bear Day. To help settle the children, Douglas has them sit in a circle, where they review the numbers (1 through 10) and review the colors of the spectrum. Then it is time to introduce the bears each child brought from home. After the introductions, the children stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, then move to their desks to learn about triangles. Meanwhile, a parent volunteer arrives to help with the day's art project: a construction-paper bear seated on a swing. As the children work, Douglas circulates among various pods of students playing quietly with wooden blocks or Duplo plastic blocks, using the class computer, working on their art project, or doing their class work. She pauses periodically to tie the laces of little shoes, encourage the young artists ("Now, I never would have thought of that!"), and even reorient a confused mother who has brought her daughter to school on the wrong day. "She's here next Friday," she says. The confusion is understandable. To save on transportation costs in a period of tight budgets, the kindergarten schedule has shifted from five half-day sessions with a morning and an afternoon class to a schedule of two full days a week per class plus alternate Fridays. Coping with a confusing schedule, however, pales in comparison with other challenges that have confronted the school. Twice, Franklin residents have had to rise to the defense of their little schoolhouse. In 1959, the state commissioner of education ordered the building closed because of unsafe conditions; a substantial amount of maintenance had been deferred during the Depression. Within a month, a special town meeting voted to spend $7,000 to make the necessary repairs, and the school was ready for classes by fall. In 1970, the Massachusetts Department of Education recommended that the town close the school; it was inefficient to keep it open, state officials said. But the community again rallied in support of its historic school. In 1976, the school landed a spot on the US National Register of Historic Places. It's nearly lunch time now, and the children sit attentively as Douglas begins the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." As she reads, it's survey time. "How many of you would like to sleep in Papa Bear's hard bed?" she asks. Three hands rise tentatively. "How many would sleep in Mama Bear's bed?" A forest of arms shoots up. Baby Bear's bed didn't stand a chance. At lunch time, Douglas has some bad news for pepperoni lovers: "The lady who makes the pizza was out of pepperoni, so all we have are cheese pizzas." Not to worry. They disappear rapidly, as their devourers anticipate recess in the warmth of an early fall day.

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