Capturing the magic of the one-room school in Montana

In early spring, the morning sun casts long shadows across the vast expanse of open land in Glen, a small ranching community in the Pioneer mountains of south-west Montana.

On Schoolhouse Road, where pavement meets gravel, clouds of dust obscure my perspective as I head toward Reichle School, a two-room schoolhouse with two teachers and 15 students.

I’ve been a professional photographer in Montana for more than 20 years, and some places continue to call me back; I was last here for an assignment in 2013. On this return trip, I hope to learn more about the rural school experience, especially in light of the many challenges faced by children in American schools.

  • From top: Teacher Becky Jensen, right, and pre-service teacher Kalli Miller outside Reichle School in Glen, Montana, on 20 March 2024; student Jeff Rhodes during band practice, and a photograph of former student Chris Rieber in a Reichle School memory book, on 11 April 2024; an archery lesson with teacher Leah Tucker-Helle at Reichle on 20 March 2024.

When I arrive at Reichle, my memory of it matches as neatly as a tracing when placed on top of the original photograph. Everything appears the same: the quaint red facade, the old-fashioned merry-go-round, the grandeur of the mountain backdrop. Even the teacher, Becky Jensen, who has worked at the school for 25 years, is in place.

When she greets me at the front door, I linger for a moment, feeling like a child again, held in a benevolent spell. Like Oz’s Glinda, the good witch of the north, Jensen shepherds me toward the students who are reading outside at a picnic table with teacher Leah Tucker-Helle.

Later, when I talk with Jensen on the playground, she agrees that the school is mostly the same. It’s just the students who have changed.

In my home town of Bozeman, about 130 miles from Glen, I call the Gallatin History Museum, looking for historical photographs of two country schools in the area, Malmborg and Springhill. Co-director Charlotte Mills answers the call and responds with the salty, unabashed assurance of a fifth-generation Bozeman native.

“You can come down and look,” she says, “but they will probably look the same as what you have.”

  • Teacher Alison Bramlet leads students inside at the start of the day at Malmborg School outside Bozeman, Montana, on 27 February 2024. The one-room school accommodates seven students in grades kindergarten through eighth.

Current photographs of both schools – each established in the 1880s to serve farming families – are true to their original identities: Malmborg, with its octagon-shaped structure and barn (where children once housed their horses), and Springhill, with its charming white exterior and two front doors (previously used as separate entrances for boys and girls).

Today, Malmborg operates as a one-room, kindergarten-through-eighth grade school with seven students – and one dog. Springhill is a two-room, two-teacher, 15-student kindergarten-through-eighth grade school.

  • From top: Teacher Alison Bramlet works one-on-one with a student at Malmborg School on 27 February 2024; student Davin Krushensky works on a lesson while holding one of the baby chickens their teacher introduced to the curriculum, on 31 March 2024; student Marley Kleman works independently on 27 February 2024; Marley enjoys quiet reading time on 21 March 2024.

At the museum, in addition to photographs, I find newspaper articles about the rural schools dating back to 1970 with telling titles and dates, including “Hard work, rewards at a one-room school” from 1988 in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and “Springhill School students, teacher appreciate family-like atmosphere” from 1992 in the High Country Independent Press.

Also, an online search uncovers national features about Montana’s schoolhouses – among others, a 2023 NPR story, “One-room schoolhouses are still a lifeline for rural communities”, which reported that Montana has the greatest concentration of country schools in the US.

As I sit in the museum’s research room, among old photographs and worn newspaper clippings, I realize that many of the schoolhouse stories are similar, with narratives celebrating common ideals: a family-like atmosphere, older student mentors, community, a low student-teacher ratio and creative curriculums. But, what about the downsides for students – like less social interaction and fewer opportunities for extracurricular activities, team sports, band and choir?

  • A student lowers the Montana flag at the end of the day at Springhill School, a kindergarten-through-eighth grade school in Belgrade, Montana, with two rooms, two teachers and 15 students, on 2 April 2024.

Furthermore, in a world of the 24-hour news cycle with moment-to-moment refreshed content, why does the rural schoolhouse story never grow old?

Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, 82, has some thoughts. She was the Gallatin county superintendent of schools from 2003 to 2015, with oversight of local rural schoolhouses. Fitzgerald says there has always been unrest in the world, but today, given online connectivity, children are more vulnerable.

“With all the technological devices that kids have in their possession, with all the things such as TikTok and Instagram, I think we have a different child now in education than we have ever had before,” she says.

“I think Florida and their stand on TikTok for kids is right,” she adds, in reference to recent legislation banning children under age 14 from creating social media accounts.

Fitzgerald continues: “I’m not a fan of social media. In the rural school, you put the devices away and you talk to one another. You go out on the playground and you play with one another.”

The current Gallatin county superintendent, John Nielson, thinks it’s difficult to measure and compare screen use – including TikTok – between students at traditional and rural schools.

But he does speak to an aspect of rural schools that resonates as timeless to me: “I would say the beauty of the small rural school is the students are all doing different things [in the classroom]. Or they are doing the same thing at different levels, and so, there’s all this space to let them be who they are.

“To me,” Nielson says, “education is 100% about relationship, and being a great teacher means you are connected in some way to every student.”

Given Nielson’s definition, it seems like simple math to deduce that in the rural school – where there are fewer kids per teacher, one teacher for the entire day, and consecutive years with that teacher – there’s more time to build connection.

But the equation doesn’t always hold true. Nielson, previously an elementary school teacher in a traditional classroom, is realistic when he asserts that there are educators in public schools who connect with every student and teachers in rural schools who do not.

Finally, I take my questions to the students. When I ask what is unique about their rural school experience, it’s not easy for them to have insight without hindsight. For example, a 12-year-old at Springhill answers: “We get Fridays off.”

“Yes,” I say. “I used to say, I loved PE the most.”

“But you probably didn’t get Fridays off.”

One former Reichle student, rancher Chris Rieber, does have hindsight. To him, the rural school experience is about more than Fridays off. To Rieber, it’s about quality education and continuing a family legacy: Rieber’s father, sister, brother and son were students at the school. Today, his daughters, Reagan and Kristian, attend.

At Reichle, on the playground, as I’m taking pictures, I hear a child in my periphery. “I feel so free!” he calls out as he flies high on the swings.

Perhaps I am romanticizing, but from where I stand, here at a rural schoolhouse in remote Montana, I can see that the simple joy of swinging – of rising and falling, back and forth, over and over – hasn’t changed.

Maybe, I think, that’s the fresh take on the country schoolhouse story: despite the world, it remains – mostly – the same.

The Guardian

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