ON the first day a reporter and photographer visited the Pass Creek one-room schoolhouse in Montana, the older pupils weren't there. "They're all out branding today," explained teacher's aide Judy Krack, which is also why there weren't any horses hitched up outside as usual.
The 15 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, who come by horseback, bike, and pickup truck from as far away as 20 miles, are not all that unique in this largely rural state.
There are 112 "country schools" across Montana, most of them dating back to the late 1880s, according to Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Brown, who happened to drop in the morning we were there. These are truly wide-open spaces, she points out: Gallatin County has just over 7,000 public-school pupils, but is larger in territory than some states.
Such schools are slowly declining in number due to consolidation and demographic changes, which include more urbanization. But many remain in operation for tax purposes (joining with other schools can cost family ranchers and farmers more) and also because, as Superintendent Brown says, "parents like to have their kids close at hand."
In some cases, it's very close at hand. Mrs. Krack has three kids here and teacher Cathy Clapp has one. It's not unusual to hear "Mom! Mom!" when a child has a question or knows the answer to a math problem. The Pass Creek School is also a family affair in that 10 of the 15 pupils come from four families: three Kruses, three Kracks, two Brainards, and two Bryants. (We didn't check on cousins.)
There are advantages and disadvantages to being in such a small school.
Sixth-grader Kevin Brainard (who's been here since kindergarten) says, "I don't have to put up with bullies like I would in a big school, but it's hard to have very many friends living out here."
Kevin likes working at his own speed (he's a year ahead in math), but he misses the social contact and the opportunity to be more active in organized sports. (He's proud to point out that his ability to sprint 50 yards in 6.28 seconds makes him "the fastest kid in school.")
Rather than finish out at Pass Creek, Kevin next year is transferring to the junior high school in the nearby community of Manhattan.
Like eighth-grader Tobin Kruse (who's already doing high school math), Kevin wants to be a veterinarian ... if he doesn't become an engineer. They and the other older boys and girls often help the younger children with their schoolwork.
"Even the second-graders will help the first-graders and the kindergartners," says Mrs. Krack. "When they can explain something to the next grade down, it really helps them understand it."
Though Pass Creek is surrounded by miles of rolling hills amid spectacular mountain ranges, the pupils here are neither isolated nor academically deprived, says Mrs. Clapp. There are plans to push out one wall of the school to make an alcove for the Apple IIe computer, which already generates considerable activity over in one corner.
Students make frequent trips to the library in Bozeman or to the facilities at Montana State University there. The day after our visit, a field trip went there to learn how holograms are made and a few days later another visited the fisheries laboratory at MSU.
"The agriculture department at the university is just fantastic," says Mrs. Clapp. "The professor who does genetic studies has come out and talked to the kids. A lot of people might say there are too few kids to fool with, but we've never had that problem." When field trips are organized, she adds, "we just line up parents for transportation."
As Judy Krack says, "It's like a big family."