- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

WALL, S.D. (AP) - When it was time to start class Thursday morning, teacher Lorayna Papousek rang a hand bell and all five of her students came rushing into Big White Elementary School from the playground. They hung up their coats and began singing the days of the week after saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

All of Papousek’s students are girls. Two are in kindergarten, two in first grade and one in third grade.

That’s a pretty big change from last year, when Papousek had 11 students and a paraprofessional to help her teach.

There are 45 one-room schools in South Dakota, and Big White is the only one in Wall. With the declining enrollment, some of the students are worried about the school’s future.

Big White principal Chuck Sykora dismissed those concerns, and said that he expects enrollment to increase in the coming years. Sykora, who has been the school’s principal for the last 16 years, said enrollment numbers fluctuate, and that he has seen as many as 14 students at the school.

“We have a lot of families who live up in that area, and that’s a long commute,” Sykora said. “With young children it can make a really long day if they bring them to town, and there’s been no indication of someone who will switch them to the school in town.”

Big White opened in 1921, and the schoolhouse was moved to its current location in 1951. While it lacks some of the resources of larger, more modern schools, the farm lifestyle and the convenience of having a school close to home makes Big White a good option for families. Some live as far as 40 miles from Wall, so attending Big White can cut their commute in half.

The one-room schoolhouse is about 30 minutes north of Wall. Parents are responsible for bringing their children to the school, and the children also bring their own lunch every day, the Rapid City Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1QGeNsP ).

Many students are following in the footsteps of their family members, attending the same school as their grandparents, uncles and parents. Lucy Moon, 9, the elementary school’s only third-grader and the oldest student at the school this year, comes from a long line of the Big White faculty and students. Her great-great-grandmother was the school’s first teacher in 1951, and her grandfather was also a student there.

She hopes the legacy of attending the country school will continue with her younger siblings. Lucy has two younger brothers, ages 3 and 11 months, and her sister, Emmy, 7, is a first-grader at Big White.

Lucy said she enjoys being the oldest student at the school, even though she’s sometimes followed around by her younger peers. The classroom is about the size of her own family.

“If I could, I would go here all the way through high school,” Lucy said.

The school only teaches through sixth grade. Some students leave after fifth grade to begin the transition to middle school, participate in sports and other extracurricular activities only offered in town.

“The individual attention sure is a plus with the small classroom,” Sykora said. “It’s a more intimate setting for them.”

Sometimes the transition into middle school can be a challenging one, Papousek said. Last year, one of her students was worried that the stigma of coming from a country school would follow him into town, and that the other kids would make fun of him for being a “hick.”

Most of the students at Big White are also involved in other activities like 4-H, rodeo, church and sports, which help make the transition to middle school easier.

“They’re all very bright children,” Papousek said. “Our classroom is pretty comparable to the classrooms in town, and Wall is small enough to help with the transition. We’re always given whatever we need, and we’ve been very fortunate.”

Papousek began her third day teaching at the elementary school chasing cattle away from the school playground as her students’ parents dropped them off in ranch trucks.

Her classroom looks like a typical elementary classroom. The smartboard Papousek received last year hangs in the front of the room, with one computer and a color copier next to the reading corner.

Papousek has worked in the Wall School District for the last 10 years, seven of those as a paraprofessional specializing in reading. Paraprofessionals aid teachers in the classroom with curriculum and students.

Papousek’s background in reading and math intervention gives her a leg up as a one-room teacher, with the ability to help students who struggle or fall behind.

Keeping up with each grade level at once is no small task, but Papousek makes it look easy. Her attention is always focused on the grade she’s working with, while also monitoring the other students to make sure they’re on track and completing their projects.

When Papousek wants to work with a specific grade, she turns on a light that serves as a signal to other students that Papousek is giving a lesson and they must rely on each other for help.

All five students rotate between the different learning stations throughout the day, studying math, reading and vocabulary.

“We live by the timer,” Papousek said.

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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