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Bells Still Ring at 1-Room Schools : Teachers Work Closely With Pupils in Rural S. Dakota

Charles Hillinger's America

February 16, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

CRYSTAL ROSE SCHOOL, S.D. — The old, clapboard one-room school stands on a knoll in the midst of a seemingly endless stretch of frozen farmland, 17 miles from the nearest town.

Temperatures have plummeted to 30 degrees below zero this winter and there have been howling blizzards.

Yet teacher Helen Sharkey, 55, and her brood of three kindergartners, a second-grader, four fourth-graders, a sixth-grader and a seventh-grader have braved the elements.

"We never close the school unless it's impossible to get here because of deep snow," said Sharkey, a one-room school teacher in Tripp County for 23 years.

Her 10 students are from four farm families living within nine miles of the school. Seventh-grader Desi Taggart is only 12 but she drives brother Heath, 6, and sister Josi, 10, six miles to school every day in a pickup.

There is no public transportation for children going to the one-room schools; transportation usually is provided by parents. Some students ice-skate to and from class on nearby Crystal Rose Creek.

Crystal Rose School is one of eight one-room schools in sparsely populated Tripp County, and one of 80 one-room schools in South Dakota.

In 1930, when the nation had 150,000 one-room schools, South Dakota boasted 3,300 of the quaint structures. Tripp County had 87 one-room schools that year.

One-room schools, however, have been vanishing from rural America with the advent of better roads, bigger farms, smaller families and school consolidations.

By 1950, the number had dwindled to 60,000, by 1970 to 1,800, and now there are 800.

"We will have one-room schools in this state as long as there are children living in isolated areas," said Clint Berndt, 56, director of school standards for the South Dakota Division of Education.

Tripp County has more one-room schools than any of South Dakota's 67 counties. The state has more one-room schools than any other, save Nebraska.

Denzil Rush, 49, is principal of 15 schools. His office is not in any of them; it's in Central Elementary School in Winner, S.D., county seat of Tripp County.

"I'm like a circuit rider. I make it a point to visit each of my 15 schools at least once a month," Rush said.

He is principal of eight one-room, six two-room and one three-room schools in rural Tripp County. The student body for all 15 schools numbers 186. They are taught by 23 teachers. All the county's one-room-school teachers are women.

None of the teachers in Rush's district ever warns an unruly student: "You're going to the principal's office if you do not behave." The principal's office for one-room Beaver Creek school is 40 miles away.

"We have very few disciplinary problems," Rush said. "In my six years as principal of the 15 rural elementary schools, I have only been called out twice for disciplinary reasons."

The county's other one-room schools are Brunson, Carter, Greenwood, Plainview, Rielly and Weaver. The students all live on farms or ranches.

"Farm families take great pride in their one-room schools," said Rush. "Most of the schools were built during the early part of this century. Four generations of many families have gone through the same school.

"If we suggest remodeling a school, we have to talk it over with the people in the county. They don't want it changed too much from what it was when they went there."

Water pumps and outhouses still stand outside the schools even though indoor plumbing and running water have been installed.

Assigned to each school is a liaison who is responsible for the maintenance. Liaisons usually are parents or students who are paid $3.75 an hour to plow snow from the roads leading to the school and to perform minor repairs. Many parents are liaisons for 10 to 12 years--as long as it takes for all of their children to go from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Elaine Coonrod, 32, is secretary for Tripp County's 15 rural schools. She takes care of ordering supplies, copying work sheets and tests for teachers, and keeping records.

Coonrod was graduated from Goodwill No. 2 East one-room school in Sisseton in northeast South Dakota. "I loved it. I missed the individual attention you get in a one-room school when I went to high school in town. There are a lot of pluses in these little schools," she said.

At Rielly school south of Winner, Donna Brozik, 35, was quizzing her students about Black History Month.

She has only four students, all boys--fourth-graders Donny Ernst and Michael Kemp, both 10, and seventh-graders Billy Ernst and Tod Novotny, 13.

Brozik, like her four students, lives on a nearby farm. She has taught in five one-room schools in Tripp County the last 13 years. The teachers stay three years in one school, then are transferred to another.

"Two of the schools I taught in no longer exist," Brozik said. "They ran out of students and were sold. One of the schools, Sully, is now a hog barn."

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