By Jerome Tharaud
For some town-dwellers, country schools might conjure up nostalgic images of a bygone age when live-in teachers used to instruct their pupils in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.
But for more than 1,000 Hi-Line students, the country school is still part of daily life. That's true here in Bear Paw School, a one-room school tucked into the northern edge of the Bear Paw Mountains, where six students finished out the school year this week, decorating their classroom to complement a thematic unit about life under the ocean.
The students each enjoy different things about where they go to school.
"The teacher works with you individually more," said Tyrel Raty, 12, a sixth-grader at Bear Paw School. Raty estimated that most days he gets about an hour of one-on-one attention from his teacher. Even so, Tyrel is looking forward to having more classmates when he attends high school in Chinook.
Merle Young, 9, is the only student in the third grade at Bear Paw. Two years ago the other student in his grade, the child of a ranching family, followed work to Kansas, he said. The two were good friends, "pretty much like twins."
It would be more fun to still have someone in his grade, Merle said, but he's friends with everyone in the school, including his two younger brothers, Casey and Kevin.
He said the best part of his school is "people I can trust."
"I have my best friend in school, sits right next to me. ... I know I can go to the kids that are older han me if I can't read a word. I know those kids can help me," Merle said.
For 10-year-old Meagan Raty, it's not what goes on inside her school that she loves the most, but what's outside.
"You can go sledding every winter. We got a hill," said Meagan, who said she sleds during recess every day in the winter.
Bear Paw School teacher Sarita Kuhn said that even though it's a challenge going over each subject with her six students in six different grades, she likes the small school because she gets to know her students better.
"It's more personal," she said.
Her counterparts in nearby rural schools agree.
"There's a lot of one-on-one," said Tammy Brough, who has taught in three country schools in the last six years and now teaches at North Harlem Colony School. Her class sizes in that time have ranged from three to nine, she said. "You can learn where they're at and take them to the next level. You get to know them so much better."
Carolyn Liddle, who teaches three students - two kindergartners and a second-grader - at Cleveland School, said she used to teach in a larger setting.
"I felt frustrated because there's some kids you just can't get to," she said. "There's just not enough time in the day."
The intimate setting of country schools, which often have fewer than 10 students, brings unique challenges as well. Most teachers no longer have to face the isolation of long nights in a "teacherage," a residence adjoining the school, but some now face sizable commutes - Liddle travels 30 miles each way.
Not only do students have fewer social contacts than their peers in town, but teachers have fewer adults around "to bounce ideas off," Brough said.
That's why, on a brisk autumn afternoon last year, teachers from Blaine County's four country schools met in Chinook for one of their regular planning meetings with Carol Elliot, the Blaine County superintendent of schools. She administers the four operating rural school districts in Blaine County.
Elliot is herself a product of rural schools, having first attended one as a child, and then teaching in two country schools in Beaverhead County during the 1960s.
Back then, she recalls, country schools were more isolated, and students seldom went to town. Entertainment was ice skating on a reservoir or sledding at a nearby gravel pit. Elliot remembers taking a student to compete in the state spelling bee. The student had never been to Butte and was "completely overwhelmed" by the auditorium.
"It's changed a lot, mostly in the number of kids in them," Elliot said. "But I still think they get a great education."
"There's nothing backwards about country schools," said Melinda Baxter, a paraeducator who was hired to help with a special education student as part of the Bear Paw Co-op, a cooperative that helps rural schools provide educational services.
Country schools have a host of resources at their disposal, and now their students get further afield than they used to.
For example, teachers can order resources to help teach new units, like boxes full of curriculum materials on different topics, from horses to nutrition. In Blaine County, schools use the same computerized reading program that many other area schools use, and they also belong to a consortium that gives them access to the Worldbook Encyclopedia on-line.
In the last year, field trips taken by area schools included attending a play in Great Falls, visiting a museum in Bozeman, taking swimming lessons in Havre and going into the mountains to learn about ecology from a forester, Elliot said.
But the most valuable resource the teachers have is their own creativity, she said. It's necessary for everything from the bulletin boards they put up at each holiday to the obligatory Christmas program each school puts on.
To keep things fresh for students, teachers often move from school to school every two or three years, Kuhn said.
Each new teacher brings a unique set of skills to a school, said Kuhn, who teaches students to make spreadsheets, use digital cameras and make computerized slide shows. She started teaching at the East End Colony School six years ago, then taught at the Gildford Colony School for three years before coming to Bear Paw. Once students experience one teacher long enough, it's time for another teacher with new skills.
By then, she said, "We've used our talents and we've exhausted our talents with that group of kids."
One evening the week before Christmas, students' parents, relatives and former students filled Bear Paw School to enjoy a longstanding rural school tradition: the Christmas program. The school's six students showcased their talents in a variety of skits and songs, ranging from the traditional - a dramatization of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" - to "The Old Rusty Chevrolet."
After the laughter and applause died down, the audience enjoyed hot food and caught up with family and friends. The one thing nearly everyone had in common was the experience of growing up in a rural school.
Barb Crowley said her whole family attended Bear Paw School from the first through the eighth grade. She and her five siblings went there decades ago. Her three children went here as well, and now her nephews are here. Crowley said one advantage of a rural school is that students' knowledge is reinforced when they hear lessons repeated to younger students in subsequent years.
But with dwindling enrollment and teachers becoming harder to find, it raises the possibility that the next generation of students may not share the classroom experience their parents did.
If there are no students to fill a school, it becomes "nonoperating," Elliot said, which means it can begin operating again at any time if students move into the district. If no students come into the district for three consecutive years, it is closed. It takes three students to reopen the school, as well as the approval of the county superintendent and the county commissioners.
Twenty years ago, she said, there used to be about 15 kids at Bear Paw School.
Area residents say changes in the ranching economy have contributed to the decline of rural schools, as fewer hired men and their families come to the area for work.
"The economy isn't so good, so we're not hiring as much," said another audience member at the Christmas program, Betty Don Ross, whose family ranches south of Cleveland. Ross attended a rural school in the 1930s, and her four children attended Bear Paw School in the 1960s and '70s. Younger brothers and sisters often move away because ranches aren't big enough to support multiple siblings once they've grown up, she said.
Nearby, a pair of rural school graduates from a younger generation were catching up. They recounted a similar story of the draining of the countryside.
"When we were going to school, there were tons of rural schools," said Angie Hofeldt, who graduated from Cow Island Trail School in Lloyd in 1992. The school is no longer operating because there were not enough students to keep it open, she said.
Many of the students who used to fill rural schools were children of hired ranch hands, said Una Ford, who graduated from Bear Paw School in 1993.
"The hired hands are kind of extinct almost," said Ford, who remembers when her grandparents had hired hands on the family ranch. Maybe, she surmises, it's because more machines make the hired labor unnecessary. Now Ford's two brothers and her husband work for her father on the ranch.
Ford is one of the children who chose not to leave rural life, and might in turn help provide the next generations of rural school students.
One of her fondest memories was when her teacher used to make the students run up the hill behind the school to a telephone pole and back before class could start, even in the winter.
"I just had a blast," Hofeldt agreed, recalling swinging, playing tag and sledding.
In their memories of playing near a rural school, one hears echoes of Meagan Raty's own delight in life at a country school. And perhaps, in 10 years, their own children will experience the same delight.
Hofeldt said she would put her kids in a rural school too if she ever moves back to Montana. After graduating from Chinook High School, her travels took her to North Dakota, South Dakota, and then to New York. She came back to Montana briefly, and then moved on to Seattle. On a holiday evening she was back to see old friends again.
"It's a lovely place to visit," she said. But not to stay, at least not for now.
Ford hopes her children can go back to the school where she went.
"I wouldn't take them to a town school," Ford said of her future children. She said she would send them to Bear Paw School, "if it's still open by the time I have kids."