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Through one room ... and into the world


By Chris Martell
Wisconsin State Journal ~ May 26, 1996

There were 6,000 one-room country schoolhouses in Wisconsin in the late 1930s. Today, one is still open on remote Madeleine Island. Nearly all the others were swept into oblivion in the 1960s during a wave of school "consolidations" -- the buzzword of the era. Education changed forever.

Jerry Apps, in new bib overalls and carrying a lard bucket filled with his lunch, first entered a one-room school in Waushara County in 1939. The Madison author looks back at those days in his recently published "One-Room Country Schools -- History and Recollections from Wisconsin" ($18.95, Amherst Press).

While researching the book, Apps talked to hundreds of people who attended or taught at country schools. He learned that many problems that haunt modern educators have been around, in some form, since the first Wisconsin school opened nearly 200 years ago.

Diversity. Multilanguage, multiage classrooms. Educational standards. Teacher burnout. Discipline problems. Busing. Teaching religion and morals in public schools. Local control. Gender inequity. Only the buzzwords have changed.

Apps dispels the myth that country schools offered a second-rate education. "In my school, there were three kids who went on to get Ph.D's, out of about a dozen students. "You mastered things." Apps said. "You didn't move on until you could read certain things, or knew how to do arithmetic."

They were the first "neighborhood schools," scattered so that no pupil had to walk more than two miles. "The school identified its community," Apps said. "Everyone attended all the school events, the Christmas pageants, even if they didn't have kids. The thinking was, 'We're all in this together.' No one was looked at as a slow learner, or someone who might fail. If there was a problem, parents knew about it right away and took care of discipline. The teacher wasn't expected to. Teachers knew the families, and stayed overnight at their homes.

"People supported country schools," Apps said. "Today schools are seen as one more tax drain, in competition with building prisons and bridges."

With pupils of all ages in the same room, there was learning by "osmosis." Children overheard lessons being taught to other pupils. They helped younger children. "Kids were expected to be independent learners, and group learners at the same time," he said.

By seventh grade, the pressure was on: There were tests to pass into the next level. "Then to pass eighth grade, we went to the county seat to take daylong tests. We were scared stiff. So there was no idea of slacking off," Apps recalled.

Because of the standardized tests, "everyone who graduated from a country school knew how to do the same things," said Apps, a retired UW-Madison education professor and author of several books on Wisconsin. "High schools knew what they were getting."

Problems caused by "cultural diversity" are nothing new. Students, especially during periods of heavy immigration, arrived at country schools unable to speak English. A single classroom might contain children who spoke only Norwegian, or Czech, or Polish.

"The teacher would just say, 'Ole Knutson can't move to second grade without speaking English,'" Apps said. It often fell on bilingual pupils from other immigrant families to teach their peers English.

Another culture shock came with high school. "There was a great rift between town kids and country kids. We didn't even have electricity until the 1950s," Apps said. "Town kids thought country kids were hicks. Naive hayseeds. But in many ways we were better prepared. We'd learned how to work. We were up early every morning doing chores. And school was our work. By the time we graduated, I think the town kids had a begrudging respect for us.

"But a lot of people who went to country schools told me they still have a sense of insecurity," Apps said. "We're shy people in urban settings, Garrison Keillor-esque. We don't feel comfortable in big social groups," Apps said. "John Palmer, who was dean of the School of Education, told me he still feels uncomfortable in groups. It's the isolation of being in the country. But, it's funny, we can do public speaking. We all had to stand up in front of the whole community to say our piece at the Christmas pageant."

There have always been disruptive students and too-big classes. Ruby Schulz, who taught in rural Dane County in the 1940s recalled a student who, "hauled off and hit me, and my glasses flew off and under the piano."

"During the year when I taught 50 students, I expelled the entire fifth and sixth grades ... every child had to get up in front and individually apologize to me for misbehaving. Their parents sat in the back of the room. I didn't have any trouble from that group anymore."

There were other ways to annoy teachers. One little boy went home with a note asking his mother to give him a bath because he smelled. The mother responded to the teacher with a note: "Learn Jimmy, don't smell him. Jimmy ain't no rose." Some schools gave home credits for things like brushing teeth and bathing, sleeping with a window open, or feeding hogs.

Complaints about parents not doing their part of the job date to 1647, when government-subsidized schools were established in New England "taking into consideration the great neglect of many parents and guardians in training up their children."

There was no gang graffiti in country schools. But boys marked turf in other ways, by picking up roosting bats, spreading their wings and chasing girls away with them. Groups of boys drowned gophers.

Teacher burnout, Apps said, is eternal. In 1950, a Fond du Lac teacher signed a contract that required her to "carry water daily for school use."

"There was the sheer starkness of the situation," Apps said. "A teacher, who might be 16 years old, had to walk two miles to school in subzero weather, bring in wood and start a fire in the stove. All of that in an uninsulated building without plumbing or electricity." There were no janitors. But there were outhouses to clean.

Books were pitifully scarce. Maybe just a few Bibles. To make copies, teachers used primitive devices called "hectographs" that involved a foul-smelling, boiling brew that left their hands stained purple.

During the 1880s, young women typically earned $1.25 to $2 a week to teach. Men got up to $20 a month.

Teaching via interactive computers or closed-circuit television is today heralded as new and innovative. But Apps points out that "this has been around in some form since the 1920s: The 'School of the Air' was broadcast to 15,000 students across the state from WHA radio. "There was Ranger Mac for nature study. We were also taught how to draw over the radio," he said. "We were told to imagine what we heard, and draw it."

The fate of country school was linked to that of family farms, which began to disappear in the 1950s. But Apps said he met plenty of people who still argue passionately that going back to one-room schools is the only way to solve today's education problems.

"I know that's not going to happen. I appreciate that having bigger schools saves money for buildings, heat, electricity. (Contemporary schools) provide better art and music education. Central heating is nice. So are indoor toilets."

But there were also absurdities. "Like when people pushing consolidation were trying to get these farmers excited about their kids getting a chance to participate in physical education," Apps said. "The farmers didn't know what a gymnasium was. Then they'd find out. They'd turn around and say, 'Wait a minute. You want to bus my kids five miles, and then have him run around in a gym -- He's been walking two miles to school and doing chores. I don't think he needs exercise.' "

The push to consolidate schools was triggered by more than money. "These were very small test score discrepancies that came from an urban bias. Country kids would be asked a question about elevators. Of course, they had no idea what that was. But then, a city kid wouldn't know how long it would take to chop down a tree."

The demise of the country school also means there are kinds of memories that modern children will never have. "On really cold days we'd cluster around the red hot stove until noon," Apps said. "We didn't have science labs. But when we walked to school we saw trees, flowers, wild animals, a neighbor's cow, and we saw how the weather changed. We learned so much.

"Country schools worked well -- a lot better than most people realized. People who tried to close down these schools didn't understand the intangibles: Every child felt wanted, secure, safe and challenged. And they knew they were there to learn."

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