SPRING 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 3
by Jennifer O'Loughlin
Walk into Reichle School in Glen, Montana, north of Dillon, and you won't find the traditional one-room classroom. The school's twenty-one students are divided into two classrooms. On a Friday before Christmas, kindergartners through fourth-graders hunch over journals as their teacher moves table to table. Across the hall, fifth- through eighth-graders work on individual lessons, using stand-up dividers for privacy. Two students work at a computer while another watches the teacher correct his entry for the Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest.
Rural schools in Montana in the 1990s? Hailed as a breakthrough in larger elementary schools, this "multi-age grouping" has been used in Montana for more than a century. Today's 284 rural schools are a fraction of the 820 schools operating in the 1950s, but they are vital to Montana's rural communities. And as small towns evolve from agricultural communities to commercial centers, separated by vast tracts of land, these schools face challenges unknown to their predecessors.
On top of declining enrollments and rising costs, Montana's rural schools must offer students a broader education than their predecessors because many students will leave rural America, according to Cheryl Johannes, director of the Rural Education Center at Western Montana College of The University of Montana. "Rural school teachers must give students a better understanding of what they'll face when they get out of school," she says.
Established in 1980 to overcome the isolation and lack of resources faced by rural school teachers, the center created a listing of rural school teachers and their specialities. A computer network provides teachers with new teaching materials; a newsletter lists educational events and resources such as the Museum of the Rockies' Star Lab, a portable planetarium complete with astronomy lessons.
The center also modified WMC's teaching curriculum to feature courses on teaching multiple grades simultaneously, with an emphasis on field experience. Rural schoolchildren spend one day a week with WMC students, who prepare lessons for several different grade levels. Education majors must student-teach for at least fifteen weeks before they can receive their certificates. Students must also learn about the communities they will enter. "Teaching is not an isolated job in rural schools," Johannes says. "You must have a broad sense of the context of each child."
Even though rural school teaching can be like "managing a three-ring circus," according to Johannes, it has its compensations. The pupils are dedicated and work hard without much supervision. They also compare favorably to their urban counterparts. Reichle School alone contributed four valedictorians to Beaverhead County High School over the past fifteen years; three 1996 graduates are honor students at the high school.
Classroom activities vary widely at Reichle. In one classroom, kindergartners draw scraggly trees while older students write Christmas tree stories, talking quietly or raising a hand to call the seventh-grade girl who's helping out. At the session's end, students read their stories and display their art. The shyer ones have the teacher, Linda Hicks, read their stories while the proud authors stand next to her.
Across the hall, upper-grade students spend more time on individual lessons because the wide range of abilities can make traditional teaching difficult. "You can have one seventh grader with ninth-grade reading skills," says teacher Sue Webster, "and another with fourth-grade skills." Such disparities are most apparent in spelling and math, so Webster gives individual lessons in these subjects, but she teaches social studies and science to the entire class.
The two biggest challenges facing Reichle and other rural schools are direct results of the schools' best features. Almost half of Reichle's students are special needs children from Dillon because the emphasis on individual attention is well-suited for children with learning disabilities. This can be particularly challenging for a teacher, who must make sure that everyone gets the attention he or she needs.
The school must also comply with new state mandates requiring public schools to have a librarian and counselor, and music, art and physical education instructors. "We're squeaking by," Hicks says. "I've got a minor in library science, and Sue has a degree in music. Like most rural schools, we're operating with a variance for some of these rules."
Both Hicks and Webster are particularly proud of the school's music program. "We're the only rural school in this region with a band," Webster says, noting that last year's thirteen-member band played in WMC's homecoming parade.
"We've only got two members this year," she says, a bit wistfully, "so we're playing a lot of duets."
Jennifer O'Loughlin '73, M.S. '80, is a freelance writer in Dillon.