ON Monday morning last week at Pass Creek School, students trickled in one by one. A sixth grader told the teacher about her weekend barrel races while her classmates took their seats — all five of them.
On most days, the rural, one-room schoolhouse has just six students. Two kindergarteners will slowly transition to a full-school week throughout the ensuing months, but that’s it for Pass Creek. And that’s just the way the students and the long-time teacher, Sidney Rider, like it.
In a county full of rapidly growing schools and frequent bond requests for bigger buildings, it’s easy to forget there are still thriving one-room schoolhouses. According to Gallatin County Superintendent Laura Axtman, four still operate. Cottonwood and Malmborg Schools feed into Bozeman High School, while Pass Creek and Springhill Schools send students to both Belgrade and Manhattan High.
“We’re just so lucky to have these small schools as an option in our community,” Axtman said. “It’s so important, both to the families involved and to myself, to preserve that sort of education.”
Though she only has a handful of students, Rider said she’s never worried about Pass Creek’s viability. She’s been teaching all nine grade levels at Pass Creek School, a small white building 20 miles north of downtown Belgrade, for 18 years.
Rider said she initially chose to teach in a one-room schoolhouse because it was the only opening available near her home in Hardin. Now, she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I just realized this sort of school is more of a family environment and you really get to teach because you have no discipline problems,” Rider said. “I get to teach all day, every day. There has absolutely never been a time when I thought, ‘Man, I wish I just taught one fourth grade class.’”
In order to teach every subject to all different age levels, Rider said she’ll often lead a lesson in a particular subject and call up each age group individually to do one-on-one lessons. Her students learn to be independent and efficient very quickly.
They often learn elective classes all together. Rider said the kids have computer, Spanish, art and African drumming classes all once a week and enjoy a diverse range of physical education. The students have laptops and tablets and a smart board hangs on the wall in their main classroom.
“The kids are getting more cultural activities here than you would at a normal school,” Rider said. “People often don’t understand that when they just drive by and think, ‘What do they have to offer there?’ The answer is, so much more than you would ever expect.”
Every one of the students had nothing but praise for their small school. Fourth grader Piper Davis said there’s “no way” she would ever want to go anywhere else. Her friend, 10-year-old Macy Kruse agreed. Both said they feel lucky to have such a tight group of friends, despite their age differences.
“You get to know everybody in school because it’s not huge,” Davis said. “It’s fun to be able to be friends with everybody. I don’t think you could do that at a big school.”
Rider said the older students always act as role models for the younger ones, and take the job very seriously. That’s one of the reasons she has no discipline problems. Younger kids don’t want to misbehave in front of the older ones.
“I know how Maci D. feels because the girls all follow her and the boys follow me,” said fourth grader Austin Kruse, the oldest boy at Pass Creek. “It’s a lot of work. You have to think about everything you do because there’s always someone looking up to you.”
Though he’s got a few years to go, Kruse said there will be “a whole lot of crying” when he graduates from Pass Creek and moves on to Belgrade High School.
Because of its low student population, Pass Creek School was required to apply for “isolation status” a few years ago. Superintendant Axtman said that has to be done when a school’s enrollment falls below ten kids for two consecutive years and the school has to reapply every three years. She just re-upped Pass Creek’s status this spring.
If Pass Creek hadn’t won the status, the school would have lost half of its direct state aid, which equals about $22,000, Axtman said. The local community would be left to make up the difference somehow. Luckily, because of Pass Creek’s location, the Office of Public Instruction gave its application the green light. As long as there is at least one student there, OPI will keep the school open.
Springhill School is a bit more bustling than Pass Creek, but still provides an extreme contrast to the average school. Sixteen kids, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, spend their days there this year.
Like Rider, both of Springhill’s teachers have only taught in small schools. Karen Jordan taught abroad and in a juvenile detention center before seeking another unique classroom in Springhill and Bonnie Barnhart got her teaching degree later in life and traded nanny duties for a chalkboard.
“My first year, I was by myself and it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Jordan said. “There’s really no way to prepare for it if you haven’t done it before.”
She said she quickly saw the value in the unique education, though. The lower teacher to student ratio, flexibility and constant learning atmosphere are hard to find in regular classrooms. Not to mention the easy access to quick field trips. She said they often go cross-country skiing right out the back door of the school.
The students recognize the benefits, too. Several of them said they love how much attention they get in a little school.
Second grader, Emerson Krueger, has experienced a regular-sized classroom, and said Springhill is “way better.” She said she attended Hawthorne Elementary in Bozeman for kindergarten, but Springhill is a much better fit.
“I didn’t get a lot of work done there because there were so many kids and the teacher had to deal with a lot of stuff,” Krueger said. “It was so loud that I couldn’t concentrate.”
Jordan said she doesn’t anticipate a time when they’ll have a shortage of kids at Springhill, whether it’s because their families have gone there for generations, or they’re trying something new, like Krueger. There’s often a wait list to get in there, and unfailing support from the little community keeps the school strong.
“We have a lot of community support from everyone in Springhill,” she said. “This school doesn’t have to exist, all these kids could go to Belgrade. But it’s still here.”
Like at Pass Creek, Springhill students enjoy a wide variety of elective classes. Jordan teaches Spanish and Barnhart leads art classes, while outside teachers are brought in for subjects like technology and music. They even have a part-time school counselor.
In their regular classes, students are often grouped together by age. Most of the time, Jordan leads the older kids in the front of the school and Barnhart teaches the younger ones in the back. Barnhart said they have to get pretty creative with their lessons so kids don’t hear the same thing two years in a row.
Jordan and Barnhart mirrored Rider’s conviction that rural school kids are extremely well-prepared academically thanks to their unique education. When her kids go on to Belgrade High School, Jordan said they “just excel” in other ways, too.
“They usually place out of freshman math and often out of freshman Spanish, too,” she said. “When they leave here, they haven’t had to deal with the social problems you may encounter in a regular middle school setting. It’s very focused on learning and developing a sense of self. They’re just very self-assured when they go to high school.”
Two Springhill students will move on to high school next fall. Both Colton Alderman and Kiley Smieja said they look forward to see what it’s like to be in bigger classes and meet more friends.
“I’m nervous and excited at the same time,” Smieja said. “It’s going to be a big jump.”
Seventh grader Madeline Mangas-Clark was the only one at the table who said she wished she went to larger school at times. Only for a day, though.
“A lot of my friends go to bigger schools and they always talk about how fun it is,” she said. “It would be cool to go for like a day. But then I would want to come back here.”