It was just about this time last year when Ronda Price and her 14 students put on their annual Christmas pageant for parents and relatives in this small ranching community on the Great Plains.
They called it "Precious Memories," a look back at the one-room schoolhouse in American history, and in some respects the show was like any other Christmas celebration, with carols and classroom skits. Yet it was also a bittersweet tribute to a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.
"It's so-o-o nice of you to visit an old teacher in the nursing home," said Price, wrapped in a dark shawl and playing a part that belied her 35 years. "I was once a young girl plucked from the city and sent to God's country to be a teacher. . . . And when I look back, I have such stories to tell."
Hours before, Price and her students had lugged their old wooden desks to one side of the school, to accommodate an overflow crowd. They made speeches about yuletide spirit, cracked jokes about country outhouses and sang "Jingle Bells." Next came a pie auction and potluck dinner that lasted until 10 p.m.
"Thanks for the memories," said Price, standing in the doorway as her families bundled up against the cold and left. "And thanks for coming."
Soon the little brown classroom on the prairie was shuttered and dark. But its lights would come back on again in January, unlike thousands of other one-room schools across the nation that have closed in recent years.
Built from a mobile home and standing near a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, Sulphur Creek Elementary School is one of the last such classrooms in the American heartland. It's the only community center that folks here have ever known, and they aren't about to let it die--even if the odds are against them.
Once, single-teacher classrooms formed the backbone of U.S. education, with more than 200,000 flourishing by 1900. But the inexorable forces of modern life--including urbanization and a nationwide drive to consolidate--have made these schools obsolete. Today, fewer than 430 remain.
The rate of closures has been high in the Great Plains, where thousands of people have sold their ranches and farms because of a faltering economy. As they flee, the land is speckled with abandoned schools and playgrounds. Forty years ago, South Dakota had 2,338 such classrooms. Now, only 57 are left.
When country schools close, parents face difficult decisions: Students either ride buses to distant towns or learn at home. Sometimes, families have to move, and the uprooting has become a familiar story across rural America.
Schoolmarms like Price were once national icons, and romantics would argue that one of them surely belongs on nearby Mt. Rushmore. Yet now these teachers face extinction in a society where regional education has given way to mass standards and personal attention is lost in overcrowded classrooms.
The instructors who remain are truly endangered people--and as they vanish, more than memories are being lost.
"With one-room schools, communities defined what they wanted to be, and that sense of local character is vanishing," says Craig Howley, director of a West Virginia clearinghouse on rural education. "Modern education tries to make us all nationally predictable people, but each single-teacher school was and is different. Added together, they helped form our country's identity."
Indeed, few images resonate as deeply in American culture as the little red schoolhouse. Straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, it has long personified the can-do ethics of grass-roots democracy and frontier values. Millions of Americans who attended such schools--and millions who didn't--wax nostalgic at recollections of cold mornings around an old potbellied stove, where stern-faced teachers conducted grammar lessons from "McGuffey's Reader."
But you learned more than the three Rs: These schools instilled a sense of roots and community that today's classrooms are trying to duplicate. Many educators, in fact, are touting "new ideas" that were first developed in rural classrooms--such as mingling students of all ages instead of segregating them by grades and encouraging older children to instruct younger kids.
At the very moment that one-room schools are all but dead, dismissed as a quaint anachronism, their educational legacy lives on as never before.
Imagine a classroom where kindergarten students learn as much from eighth-graders as from their teachers. Picture a school with virtually no discipline problems--no gangs, no drugs, no disrespect. If you can, tune out all the distractions plaguing a modern urban playground and consider a small country counterpart, where parents meet with the teacher every day.
"That was the one-room school at its best," says David Tyack, professor of education at Stanford University. "It was a blending of community and teaching, where everybody got involved and had a stake in how kids learned."
There is a danger, of course, in too much nostalgia.
Few parents or educators miss the days when children trudged miles through the snow by themselves to remote log cabin schools. Mercifully, the erratic winter heating, lack of indoor plumbing and mediocre teaching materials that were hallmarks of America's rural schools are also relics of the past.
It's hard to pine for country school days that were long on patriotism and community values, but frequently short on tolerance for people who looked or thought differently. Left to their own devices, parents and administrators in rural districts often ran them with an iron hand, instilling local prejudices as much as the rituals of American democracy.
Still, the one-room schoolhouse left one unshakable legacy: The country teacher who single-handedly educated children of varying ages and skills.
"These instructors were unsung heroes," says Andrew Gulliford, author of "America's Country Schools" (University of Colorado Press, 1996). "Everybody in our country is searching for a lost sense of community, and that's what these teachers provided. You had a feeling that the school belonged to you."
In the Sulphur Creek Elementary School, the tradition lives on.
Here, parents call the shots and Ronda Price respects their wishes. She doesn't teach evolution or sex education. There are references to Jesus Christ in class, and foul language is nonexistent.
Recently, parents protested visits by a guidance counselor, with some calling him a "psychiatrist" and others suspecting a "one-world conspiracy" to brainwash their kids. The one time he showed up, they followed him around with a videocam until he left in a hurry.
People stick together on the plains. After a freak lightning fire destroyed 300 bales of hay at Price's ranch this month, neighbors quickly offered replacements. When a big-city reporter visited, the community greeted him with a potluck dinner. They also wanted to be sure he understood local values.
Some families sympathize openly with paramilitary groups, and there is widespread opposition to any kind of federal gun control. Same goes for birth control. The community has four telephone prayer lines in operation, and they come in handy for ranchers who genuinely feel threatened by the modern world.
"You get the feeling that a lot of people in power don't care about us all that much out on the plains," says Terry Hotchkiss, whose son, Wesley, attends Sulphur Creek. A genial bear of a man, he rattles off grievances ranging from the NAFTA treaty ("It's caused beef prices to plunge because of foreign competition") to the poor moral content of TV programs.
Still, the modern world has its pluses. Once a week, the Sulphur Creek students get computer lessons from a traveling instructor. In an instant, the vast distances that once cut rural schools off from the rest of the world no longer matter: Pupils here click on CD-ROMs like city kids, eagerly scanning topics from Leonardo Da Vinci to Michael Jordan to Middle Eastern politics.
They compile good to excellent grades, and Price's graduates are doing well at the nearest high school, some at the top of their class. She was chosen Rural Teacher of the Year in 1994 by the district, and several former students got her included in "Who's Who Among American Teachers."
"Watch how this teacher performs," says Gaylene Morell, the hard-working aide who helps Price run the school. "There aren't many like her anymore."
At 8:15 on a frosty December morning, Price is the first to arrive. Dumping the mail and a stack of spelling exercises on a table, she gets ready for the long workday. The rewards are many, she says, but they're hardly financial.
For $25,500, Price teaches nine grade levels, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade. She gives exams, grades homework, confers with parents, handles after-school baby-sitting chores and keeps an eye on instructors who visit the school. South Dakota pays the lowest teachers' salaries in the nation, and Price has little hope of a raise any time soon.
Three of the 14 pupils in Sulphur Creek are her own children, and Price acts as an unofficial parent to the rest. When the mother of one child gets seriously ill, Price helps him cope psychologically. If another student shows signs of abuse, she doesn't hesitate to call his home and voice concern.
"People know me in this community, and that's why they can trust me," she says. "When the district tried to have me transferred to another school, the parents made it clear they wouldn't support this. So I've been able to stay."
After eight years on the job, Price rules out the idea of teaching in a larger school. It would be impossible for her to adjust, she says, proudly citing her community roots. Like many other country teachers, however, Price came from somewhere else. Born in Virginia, she moved to Texas and settled in South Dakota 24 years ago, getting a state college degree in education.
Her father, a troubled Vietnam veteran, left the family soon after returning from the war. Price's mother, a traditional housewife, was forced to raise three boys and one girl by herself.
"My dad just fell apart and it was very rough on my mother," Price recalls. "When it seemed like he was going to [physically abuse her] I'd step in and stop it. My mom had to move us from Texas, find a house and get a job, and it wasn't easy. When she applied for food stamps, it embarrassed her greatly."
Growing up was also hard on Price, a tomboy forever seeking acceptance from males. The boys at school taunted her just for being a girl, for having the nerve to play softball, for daring to do math tables better than anyone else. When she saw her mother's pain, Price vowed never to be so vulnerable.
"I was determined to attend college and work with kids," she says. "If I could shelter them from some of the blows I took, it would be worthwhile."
Married to Rich Price, a rancher and former rodeo star, Price concedes that she'd like nothing more than to be a full-time mother to her four children. But the uncertain economy has made that impossible, at least for the next few years. There's also a question about the long-term fate of Sulphur Creek, which opened in 1987 and has thrived while nearby schools closed.
"You've got to have at least five kids or [district officials] may close you down," she says. "I guess we're OK now, but you never rest easy. You look at these children every morning and hope this school will last."
One by one, they arrive, some traveling as much as 20 miles.
First in are the Kluck girls: Melanie, 14, Haley, 12, and Danelle, 9; then the McGillivrays, Nathan, 14, and Meghan, 10; following them are the Weiss girls, Marci, 13, and Kerri, 11; finally, there's Wesley Hotchkiss, 12, Daniel Ingalls, 11, Lyle Vig, 6, Radley Hohenberger, 6, and Price's three boys, Coy, 9, Tyler, 7, and Aaron, 6. Parents hug them goodbye, then drive off.
"Morning, Ronda!" the students say, hanging coats by the door, stashing lunch boxes on a shelf and scrambling to their seats. Within minutes, they're standing for the Pledge of Allegiance and the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Next come current events. Price asks for the latest news:
"It was 75 degrees in Wyoming the other day!" Wesley says.
"The guy in California who killed the model is in more trouble," Meghan adds. "I heard they found more evidence about him."
"Our milk cow died last night," notes Haley.
"Sen. Alan Simpson is retiring. I heard it on television," adds Nathan.
What about Bosnia, Price asks?
"Well, we're sending troops there. But I don't know why," Marci says.
When the discussion ends, students quickly pull out math books and begin doing exercises, without being told. Older children stand at a blackboard, while younger pupils work in their seats. The room is virtually silent.
Price moves from child to child, asking questions, correcting their math, offering tips. Effortlessly, she glides from an eighth-grader to a fourth-grader, from a girl doing simple counting exercises to a boy learning complex fractions.
Like clockwork, the math drill ends in 20 minutes and students pull out other work materials. The older kids take notes from social studies books, while Aaron, the lone kindergarten student, reads words on a large sheet of paper. Meanwhile, the mid-level students are grappling with spelling.
Again, Price moves smoothly from one child to another. When mid-level students start joking among themselves and laughing aloud, she gives them a serious, sober look and they fall silent. She doesn't have to raise her voice.
Later on, to ease the load, Morell takes younger students to a corner of the room and drills them while Price spends more time with older pupils. Then they switch groups. It all happens in a room measuring 32 feet by 26 feet.
"You've got to be organized to a T," Price explains. "If you think about it, we have six subjects here every day and nine learning levels, so that works out to 54 different learning plans. If you know how, you can do this."
It helps, of course, that older students have learned to be self-reliant. When they're not reading or taking notes, they help teach the little ones.
"We learn how to take care of each other," Marci says. "But that's OK because we've grown up with each other. We feel pretty close by now."
Affection comes naturally. Price gives frequent hugs to students and whispers warm encouragement. When they rush outside for a noon game of football, few mind the subzero weather. The boys and girls play together easily, tumbling one another to the ground and picking each other up.
At lunch, the room relaxes and students get a chance to horse around. A visitor can't help but notice that what passes for boisterous in this class is normal decorum in other schools. When lunch ends, books snap open again.
Sometimes, Price's personal opinions color the classroom lessons. In discussing Bosnia, she says Muslims "have been the world's most violent people . . . so maybe [the United States is] backing the wrong side."
Other times, she offers perspective. When students criticize the "hippies on motorcycles" who annually invade nearby Sturgis for a huge motorcycle rally, Price recalls the time she was waiting tables in college and dreaded dealing with an unshaven customer whose motorcycle was parked outside.
"It turned out he was a surgeon from Chicago who just wanted to let himself go two weeks a year," she told the class. "He was a nice man, and it shows that you can't jump to conclusions. You've got to have an open mind."
The afternoon is given over to computer lessons, music drills and a special rehearsal for the upcoming Christmas pageant. At 3:30, the students pile out into the cold, waiting for their parents' pickups to chug up the road.
"They're like little barometers," says Morell, cleaning up. "Look at how they play. They just know when a big cold snap is headed our way."
Like life in a cocoon, the rhythms of a small country school are deceptive. Just when it seems that the days could go on forever, change intrudes.
In other communities, it's called going to high school, and most U.S. students make a simple adjustment to a new situation. But here, 40 miles from the nearest small town, parents and children face a wrenching decision.
Newell High School might as well be 400 miles away, given the perilous road conditions in South Dakota's bitter winters. Beyond that, struggling ranch families can't afford to take the time off to drive children back and forth. Busing is impractical, given the lengthy commute and tight district finances.
As a result, many parents are forced to board their children in town with strangers, five days a week. It can cost $350 a month, and some landlords drive hard bargains, spelling out in contracts that students have to be out of their temporary homes by 6 p.m. on Fridays--"blizzard or no blizzard."
The dislocation is never easy, no matter how much families prepare for it.
"I learned to adjust but in the beginning it was rough," says Yvonne Hotchkiss, 14, who graduated from Sulphur Creek this year and now attends school in Newell, returning home on weekends. "I miss my family and friends, and most of the kids I meet in school now aren't as nice or caring."
Late on a weekday night, Terry and Beth Hotchkiss sit quietly in their living room, talking about Yvonne. A close-knit, religious family, they're still getting used to the fact that their teenage daughter isn't around.
"Take a young girl like Evie, she was sheltered from a lot of the things that she's encountering now in town," Terry says. "She didn't have any exposure to teenage drinking or any wild behavior. Now that she's going to school there, she's had to stand up for herself and show some backbone."
Beth Hotchkiss nods, a sad look in her eye. Evie is boarding in town with a minister's family, and still her parents are concerned.
"I wish she were home, but that's one of the prices you pay for this life in the country," Beth says. "Putting down roots here isn't easy."
At the end of a long day, Price cranks up her 1983 Pontiac and begins the four-mile drive home. Friends kid her about the car, yet she's loyal: Her son Tyler was born in the front seat, and you don't mess with history.
A full moon rises over the plains as Price slides through a patch of gravel, and suddenly three deer race past, leaping in unison over the icy fields. It's a breathtaking sight, but tonight the teacher has other things on her mind.
Like the upcoming Christmas pageant, which needs rehearsing. Meanwhile, she has to clean the house and cook dinner for nine people, and the McGillivrays said they'd come calling later on. All at once, there's too much to do.
If she let herself worry, the Big Question would come rushing back like it always does, crowding out other concerns: What will happen when her kids are grown and it's time for high school? Would she board them with strangers?
"I could never do that," Price says flatly. "It's my place to be with my kids wherever they are. So I guess I'd probably move into town with them."
The words seem to startle her. Leaving the ranch would be unthinkable, like closing her school. A world of precious memories could vanish overnight.
"I've worked hard to keep Sulphur Creek going and it would hurt me to go," she says softly. "But times change, you know? Nothing lasts forever."