- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

BASSETT, Neb.

Twenty-five miles off the main highway, deep in a cradle of sand dunes bound together by prairie grass, a one-lane ribbon of asphalt ends abruptly at a barbed-wire fence southeast of town.

Cattle roam on one side, and on the other sits a school that’s in danger of becoming a relic in this wide-open, north-central Nebraska region that is among the most sparsely populated in the country.

In teacher Nickie Ebert’s classroom, she tells a second-grade boy about the golden rule: “Treat people the way you’d want to be treated.” She doesn’t fight for his attention; only two other pupils are in her class — a kindergartner and a third-grader. Teacher Staci Shafer, working in the school’s only other classroom, also has perfect attendance on this fall day: two girls — an eighth-grader and a fourth-grader.

Those five children are the total student body at the 120-year-old Pony Lake School.

Class photos in an album chronicle the school’s past and may give a clue to the future.

In 1988, there were 23 faces; 16, three years later; 14 in 1995.

“There’s always concern we’re going to close,” Miss Shafer said.

Rural Nebraskans for years have watched people leave, businesses dry up and the number of farms and ranches dwindle. In some places, small schools are among the few remaining symbols of vitality and community identity, providing hope for the future while acting as reminders of the past. An anomaly in some states, they remain a pillar of education systems in some, such as Nebraska and Montana, that have remote regions where cattle have long outnumbered people.

But populations in rural areas of those and other states are dipping to levels where there are few, and sometimes no students to teach. A school in the same county as Pony Lake shut down this year when its attendance dropped to a lone student.

In Montana, about a hundred small country schools have closed over the past decade and “the rate of decrease has accelerated,” said Claudette Morton, director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance.

When Kim Olind attended Alzada school in southeastern Montana in the late 1970s, there were about 20 youngsters. This year, for the first time, the school didn’t open. “It’s sad,” said Mrs. Olind, president of the school board.

Montana has more one-room schools — commonly defined as those with just one teacher and the smallest subset of country schools — than any other state in the country, according to Neenah Ellis, an author and radio producer who spent a year researching one-room schools. Nebraska is second.

“Everywhere I went,” Miss Ellis said of her cross-country trip visiting small schools, “[closing] was either of great concern or was definitely on people’s radar.”

About 24,000 one-room schools existed in 1959; 840 in 1984. Miss Ellis estimates about 300 remain.

Some small schools are fighting more than dwindling population.

After years of debate about their plight, the Nebraska Legislature last year voted to dissolve Pony Lake and other elementary-only districts and merge them with adjoining K-12 districts. The law didn’t close the schools, but instead gave the boards of the larger districts that absorbed the elementary-only districts the choice of whether they should close.

Supporters of the schools reacted emotionally to the law’s passage, and voters repealed it Nov. 7.

But the districts are in limbo. That’s because the districts were dissolved months before the November vote. Small-schools supporters recently complained in court that doing away with the districts before the vote violated their due process and voting rights. A judge disagreed, citing the fact that supporters failed to get enough signatures to suspend the law. That decision was appealed and the state Legislature is expected to revisit the controversial issue of whether to re-create the districts.

Supporters of the mergers argued that the schools were too expensive and inefficient and that K-12 boards should decide their fates. In some places where such schools exist closer to towns some people claimed that white families used them to segregate their children from Hispanics.

Ron Raikes, the state senator who introduced the controversial law, cited statistics showing some K-12 districts in towns with large Hispanic populations had hundreds of students who spoke English as a second language while outlying elementary-only schools had few or none.

Supporters tout the attention children get in the tiny schools. But the attention can be expensive.

The average, per-pupil cost of educating students in Nebraska is roughly $8,500, according to the state education department. By comparison, the per-pupil cost at Pony Lake was nearly $13,300 last year.

Another school that recently closed in the same county had per-pupil costs of more than $18,000.

Mr. Raikes said there are no data to show that students in the small schools fare any better academically than their urban counterparts.

Trudy Nolles, whose fourth-grade daughter, Katie, attends Pony Lake, is among a group of parents who are convinced their children excel because of the intimate learning environments where teacher-to-student ratios are often several times lower than national averages, students are exposed to lessons for higher grade levels and sometimes help younger children learn.

“I don’t mean to brag, but [Katie] is a fourth-grader reading on a ninth-grade level,” Mrs. Nolles said.

If Pony Lake were to close, Mrs. Nolles and other parents say that long distances to town schools on sometimes treacherous country roads could force them to move to town.

Whatever lawmakers do, the demographics for Pony Lake and similar schools are inescapable.

The population of Rock County, where Pony Lake is located, has declined about 25 percent over the past 15 years, and now sits at roughly 1,510 — less than two people per square mile. It’s expected to drop by another 200 persons over the next five years.

Similar declines have occurred throughout much of western Nebraska and Montana. Of the seven country schools near Alzada when Mrs. Olind moved back there just six years ago, only one remains.

Despite the population trends, David Wade, superintendent of the Rock County district, said the K-12 board that now oversees the country schools is in no hurry to shutter them. “As long as there are two or more students, they’ll keep them open as long as possible,” Mr. Wade said.

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