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Hometown U.S.A.: Decker, Mont.

A one-room school fit for 21st century

At Montana's Spring Creek School, the Little House on the Prairie educational model still applies. The teacher tailors academics to individuals, not grade levels.

June 12, 2011|By Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times
  • Being the only sixth grade student at Spring Creek School, Katelyn Sly does her homework as her teacher works with the younger students. Katelyn is one of nine students enrolled at the one-room school north of Sheridan, Wyo.
Being the only sixth grade student at Spring Creek School, Katelyn Sly does… (Blaine McCartney / Associated…)

As the sun rises over this lonely land, turning snowy Montana mountaintops a startling pink, the little school bus is already miles into its morning mission.

For an hour and a half, the door swings open at the end of gravel driveways and country road intersections, gathering children one and two at a time until there are nine — the entire student body of Spring Creek School.

Perched atop a hill, not far from where Gen. George Crook battled Crazy Horse in the 1876 Battle of the Rosebud, tiny Spring Creek is one of only 200 one-room public schoolhouses left in America. A semicircle of nine desks in the middle of the room represents grades kindergarten through seven.

This year there are no fifth- or eighth-graders. It all depends on who shows up. There have been as many as 12 students, as few as three.

Such a school seems impossible when stacked against the modern realities of budget cuts, school closures and overflowing classrooms. Yet in this part of the country, where elbow room comes measured in the hundreds of acres and the nearest public elementary school is 72 miles away, the "Little House on the Prairie" educational model is a logistical necessity.

Spring Creek is officially in Decker, a two-building pause in the road in southern Big Horn County, just across the border from Wyoming. The Census Bureau logs the population at 119 — a figure the locals scoff at, wondering if cows and chickens were included in the count.

The school day begins traditionally enough with the Pledge of Allegiance, but then desks are shoved aside and cowboy boots kicked off. A Zumba exercise DVD is popped in and denim-clad bottoms begin to wiggle and bounce to a Latin dance beat. No gym does not mean no gym class.

In the center with the big muscles and buzz cut is 32-year-old Creighton Teter, now in his second year as teacher/principal/janitor at Spring Creek. The kids call him Mr. T. As in:

"Mr. T, can you come here?" A second-grader is stuck on a writing assignment about nature.

"Mr. T, is this good?" A third-grader has read a book on Africa and is now making a tribal mask.

"Mr. T, is this right?" A kindergartner waves a page of addition problems as Teter and a sixth-grader read about marine biology.

Teter admits to sometimes suffering instructional whiplash as he jumps from grade to grade. Nine students multiplied by five subjects equals 45 lesson plans per day. He says he would be sunk if not for the two full-time aides the district has provided. Academics are crafted for individuals, not grade levels.

Each Friday the entire school packs into the little school bus for field trips to museums and historic sites. Sometimes they just go swimming or ice skating. Recently Teter got the idea to link his students to those in a one-room schoolhouse in Maine by Skype.

"I really can tailor and tweak the curriculum," he said. "I get to call the shots" — something he knows full well he could not do at a bigger, more traditional school.

In fact he came from one, in Dubois, Idaho, where he taught for seven years before leaving in 2009 when layoffs loomed. One day his mother called and told him about an opening in Decker. He balked but needed a job. He grew up in Sheridan, Wyo., just 35 miles away, and thought it might be nice to be closer to home. In the end he beat out nine other applicants.

"The school board gives him a lot of freedom. If he wants to do something different, we say, 'Sure, try it,'" said Patti Pilkington, a board member and parent of two boys at the school.

She has no worry that a 19th century concept will deliver a 21st century education. Spring Creek students are taught according to the same state guidelines and given the same standardized tests as their peers in bigger schools. The only difference, says Supt. Albert Peterson, is that Spring Creek students consistently outscore them.

After eighth grade, Spring Creek kids can choose where to attend high school, depending on where they live. Most wind up in Sheridan. Each morning parents drive their kids to the state line, where a bus picks them up. The Montana district pays Wyoming to take those students.

Teter, who lives in a log cabin with his dog, Libby, used to think he'd like to return to a bigger school, but now he's not so sure. He hears the complaints of fellow teachers of how besieged they feel, how they're hamstrung by mandates from Washington and state capitals.

"They tell me they envy me," he says. "They tell me what I'm doing is teaching in its purest form. I still get to actually teach."

Deam writes for The Times.

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