North Dakota’s Small Schools Fight for Survival
By most reckonings, tiny schools should be gone by now. But a few of them are hanging on in a state where the rural population has been declining for decades.
Avery is the school’s oldest student and the only eighth grader. Rosie and Ledger are in kindergarten. All three attend the Horse Creek School in western North Dakota. With a dozen pupils, Horse Creek is the only school in its district. It is one of just five one-room schools still active in the state.
The rural population in North Dakota has been declining for decades, and since 1985, consolidation has reduced the number of school districts from 312 to 173. Of those, 129 have fewer than 300 students, and 34 have less than 100. North Dakota’s steady loss of rural population makes it increasingly difficult to justify the continued operation of underutilized schools. But closing and consolidating schools has its limits. “You cannot put a 5-year-old on a bus for an hour and a half each day,” says the state superintendent of schools, Kirsten Baesler.
One-Room School, With a View
Horse Creek School sits off Highway 68, within the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Badlands are just down the road. The nearest town of any size is Sidney, 16 miles west on the other side of the Yellowstone River in Montana.
Before Avery gives her report, the day begins with some outside playtime for the early arrivals. Seemingly oblivious to the frigid April air and whipping wind, the two kindergartners play atop a mountain of snow in the parking lot. Avery and a few others see how high they can go on the swings. One boy arrives late because his dad needed help with their cows.
Once the pledge has been recited and the flag hoisted outside, it’s time to get down to business. “Ledger, what is the date today?” asks Katie Tosch, the school’s teacher. Tosch is technically the only instructor, but she is assisted by Monica Abell, known here as a para educator, or simply, “para.”
A Wisconsin transplant, Tosch has been teaching at Horse Creek for five years. Her greatest challenge has been the lack of opportunities to socialize. Most of her students come from ranching families and a culture that’s still foreign to her. “It’s hard to get used to,” she says about life in this remote corner of the country. “I don’t go to any of the brandings, where they rope the calves and give them their vaccinations. I can’t stand the smell. I can’t stand the sound. I don’t participate in a lot of the things they do out here.” But she marvels at their self-sufficiency. “Ledger cannot hold a pencil,” she says. “But he can shoot a bow. He shoots rabbits at their house, and his mom cooks them. And he’s only six.”
Trying to Fill a Void
The Goodrich School, four hours east of Horse Creek, is also home to a dozen students. Unlike Horse Creek, this school is situated within a small town, one that has seen better days. With additions front and back, the building is an amalgamation of disparate architectural styles, popular with schools at different times in the last century. Shrouded in fog, the school sits up against an unpaved road, made muddy by lingering late season storms. Several of the houses in the immediate neighborhood of Goodrich School are abandoned and in disrepair. The town’s bank and grocery store closed a few years ago, leaving a self-service gas station as the only remaining business. The local population continues to drift steadily downward, recently dipping into double digits.
The 12 young students still in attendance are confined to the first floor, leaving the second and third floor classrooms empty, dark, dismal and in disarray. Basketball trophies and band awards share space in the halls with framed class photos going back 100 years. The last valedictorian’s great grandmother was also a Goodrich graduate.
School administrator Rodney Scherbenske, who is 71 years old, started his career here as a teacher, 49 years ago. “I felt the calling to be here,” he says. “When I started here there were 88 kids in the top four grades.” The principal is proud of his school’s academic record, often citing the past accomplishments of his departed high schoolers. “We had six seniors that took biology from a junior college,” he says. “Our six students were the top of the class.”
The few remaining students at Goodrich are divided by age, between two teachers. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders are in Julie Bender’s class. The kindergarteners, the one first-grader and two second-graders are in the classroom next door with Laura Monson, who has been teaching for 13 years, all of them at Goodrich. Monson is a firm believer in a combined classroom. “They learn from each other. They teach each other,” she says. “What I’m teaching in second grade… the kindergarteners, the first graders, they’re listening. They’ll say, ‘oh, I remember you teaching that last year.’ So it is very beneficial.”
Next door, things are a little more freewheeling. When not directing a group lesson or activity, Julie Bender will move from desk to desk, stopping to answer questions and offer encouragement. Sometimes the entire class will focus on what one child is trying to accomplish. While one student struggles at the white board, his classmates join their teacher in helping him master cursive writing, chiming in with their own opinions of his progress.
“Make a little loop. Up, then down.” “No! You made your loop backwards, dude!”
Edmore Public School, serving students from pre-K through 12th grade, is tucked into the northeast corner of the state, just an hour from the Canadian border. When school superintendent Frank Schill arrived 10 years ago, there were 75 students enrolled. “A lot of them were in band and choir,” Schill says. “They competed at the state level. Now we’re selling the band equipment.” This year, the student population is down to 28.
It used to be that the kids came from farm families with ties to the community. But the school has come to serve more and more families moving to the area from other states, and then moving on. Tayler Lorenz, a senior, has spent her entire academic life at Edmore. She cannot help but notice the influx of transient students that keeps the school population from falling further. “We have a lot of kids who come in from California, Kansas, different states,” she says. “They stay sometimes for a couple weeks to a year or two, and then they leave. How did they find Edmore? That’s what we all wonder.”
Not only is there a student shortage in rural North Dakota, there is a teacher shortage as well. “I bet there’s over 500 openings in the state,” Schill says. His solution is to look overseas. Currently, Edmore has two on staff from the Philippines, limited by their visas to a five-year stay. One of the two has just a year remaining. The other arrived last year.
“They come over here to work,” says Schill. “They are very dedicated to getting their work done, raising money for their family, and getting back home. Social life isn’t a priority for them.” The school owns five residences that are used by employees rent-free. The superintendent lives in one with his wife. The other four are occupied by teachers. “That’s another way we attract people,” he says. But teacher turnover is high here, and it’s a constant battle to keep positions filled.
After Martinson and Schill finish serving breakfast to the students, they adjourn to the principal’s office for a scheduled interview with a teaching job candidate. Out of necessity, the meeting is conducted on Zoom. The prospect’s name is Mary. She is an Iranian who lives in Turkey but is calling from Sweden. She is remarkably poised and obviously well educated. After exchanging pleasantries, Martinson begins the half-hour interview.
“Tell us a little about yourself.”
“How familiar are you with American literature?”
“I studied for four years English literature. I need to refresh, I’m a quick learner.”
After the call, Schill is skeptical that Mary qualifies because she is not currently teaching, which is a visa requirement. “The hard thing for us is we need an English teacher,” he says. “We were hoping to find somebody that has English as their primary language.”
When Small Is Too Small
Jacinda is a second grader at Edmore. She and her teacher, Amber Riley, have an entire classroom to themselves. The teacher’s small metal desk is angled into one corner, and Jacinda’s student desk sits alone in the middle of the otherwise empty room. Often, the two of them will work together, face-to-face at a semicircular table at the front of the room. As Jacinda quietly works on a writing exercise, muffled sounds from the class next door can be heard through the walls. “I would definitely say one-on-one is way too small,” says Riley. “A lot of people think it’s so easy having one kid. But it’s harder.” Both teacher and student say that having no one to talk with is a problem. Small class size has long been considered an advantage to both teacher and learner. But when it is this small, the benefits are in doubt.
A shortage of classmates has not been a problem for Tayler. Planning on a career in law, she is quick to credit her school’s small size for her success. “There aren’t many kids,” she says. “So I don’t have any distractions.” Still, she is apprehensive about life at college. “I am a little bit nervous about it, just because it’s so many students. And I’ve never been around that many people at once.”
A Local Concern
Edmore Principal Diane Martinson is adamant in her belief in the benefits of a small school. “The children would be overlooked in other schools,” she says. “They wouldn’t be given the time and attention.” Even so, the possibility of closing is always in the background. If need be, Martinson has considered adding the role of part-time teacher to her already large list of responsibilities. “It’s year to year,” says Superintendent Schill. “Every year we talk about it. We’re both getting to the point of, ‘a couple more years…’”
The state of North Dakota pays about 80 percent of the cost of educating each student. A small school can remain open only as long as local taxpayers are willing to make up the difference. The per-pupil cost of educating a child in a small school is higher because administrative and operating costs are shared between fewer people. “The Legislature has recognized the importance of small, rural, isolated schools,” says state Superintendent Kirsten Baesler. “So they add weighting factors for extra funding.”
“So many of these school districts, they don’t want to dissolve, they don’t want to consolidate,” says Baesler. “The closure of a school is a death to a community.”
Sometimes though, a school closes not because the funding isn’t there, but because it can no longer provide the intangibles of an education, such as opportunities to socialize. “I’m not sure that nostalgia should be the reason to hang on to a school,” says small-school advocate Heilman. “The reason to hang on to a school should be ‘are we meeting the needs of the children? Are we doing the best we can do for the child?’”
The Struggle Continues
Raechel Newgard has taught at Edmore for 12 years. Her two young sons attend school here. They are relocating to a bigger school in the fall. “It was a big decision for us,” she says. “We just knew that eventually the school is going to close, and what will we do?” Her position at Edmore has already been filled.
The Goodrich School is closing after a century of service. Another school, 18 miles away, will take its remaining students. The town has first option to buy the building. Otherwise, it goes up for auction. “It’s never been a financial thing,” says Rodney Scherbenske, the principal. “The board always left it up to the parents to determine when small was too small. We’ve got one kid in a class, two kids in a class, and they figure that socialization needs to be a part of their education.”
“It’s hard,” says teacher Laura Monson. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Katie Tosch is leaving her position at Horse Creek School. With plans to marry, she is returning to her home state of Wisconsin. But Miss Monica will be back. And Rosie’s little sister, Daisy, will be starting kindergarten in the fall.