One-Room Schoolhouse Concept Alive and Well in North Dakota

Hoffner, Josh. "One-Room Schoolhouse Concept Alive and Well in North Dakota." Forum, 14 November 1999.

Bowman, N.D. – As they head into the millennium, the five students at the Cottage School don’t worry about shootings, crowded classrooms, or a lack of attention from their teacher.

The Cottage School is a one-room, country schoolhouse in southwestern North Dakota, surrounded by wide-open fields, pastures and gravel roads. It’s an area of North Dakota, where cows are more common than kids.

Cottage, built around the turn of the century, is one of two schools in Slope County. The other is a one-room schoolhouse in nearby Amidon with seven students.

One-room schoolhouses were scattered throughout America’s countryside at the turn of the century, but they are becoming rare, even in North Dakota. The state has 10 one-room schoolhouses, compared with 4,700 in 1918.

But that doesn’t bother parents who send their children to Cottage.

“In a small, country school like this, it’s so easy to instill good family values,” said Connie Gaebe, Cottage’s only full-time teacher. “That’s why their parents send their kids here.”

Dustin Freitag and John Wegner are the second graders at Cottage. Samantha Holzer is Gaebe’s daughter and the school’s only girl and third-grader. Thomas Burke and James McKitrick make up the fifth-grade class.

Thomas comes from a long line of family members who went to country schoolhouses. His father, Thomas, and mother, Twyla, were classmates at Cottage. His four older brothers attended a nearby one-room school before it consolidated with Cottage.

“We feel he gets as much or more than a classroom with more students in it,” Twyla Burke said. “We get excellent teachers.”

Country schoolhouses at the turn of the century didn’t have indoor plumbing, heat or electiricity. Cottage School has all that – and technology.

It has three computers with internet access, a television, a copy machine and a microwave. Baebe hope to get a laptop computer with a grant she is writing.

Cottage students receive plenty of individual instruction. Gaebe taught Thomas and James math recently by telling them how important weights and measures are to farmers. On the other side of the room, Dustin, John and Samantha worked on art projects.

John and Dustin, working hard to stay in the lines with their colors, discussed the enrollment prospects at the school.

“We know there is going to be at least seven (students) next year,” Dustin said.

“We know two for sure – your brother and my sister,” John said.

The family atmosphere is present at all levels of the school district. When Gaebe interviewed for the job this year, she met with the students’ parents, who are the school board members.

“It just has to kind of rotate among the parents,” Country School Superintendent Lois Anderson said of the school board.

The Cottage families are farmers and ranchers. John and Dustin, the second-graders, say they want to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

“My dad might need the help,” said John, wearing cowboy boots and already looking like a young farmer.

Parents haul their kids to school every day because the school district doesn’t run school buses. The school doesn’t serve lunch, so students bring Crock-Pots with hot, home-cooked meals. They spend their recess breaks building tree forts, playing football, frolicking on old playground equipment and cruising gravel roads with their bicycles.

Gaebe regularly piles the students in her vehicle for field trips. After completing a unit on sunflowers, students rode along with an area farmer as he harvested his sunflower crop.

Gaebe and other parents aren’t worried that the school will fade away as the number of children in rural areas continues to dwindle.

“We have enough younger ones coming up in the neighborhood that I think it’ll be open for a few more years,” Twyle Burke said.

Tom Decker, North Dakota’s director of school finance and organization, believes the number of country schoolhouses could actually increase. Decker says some rural counties may eventually be served best by one country school.

Reprinted with permission by The Forum.

Cottage School fifth-graders, James McKirtric, left, and Thomas Burke work on math lesson with teacher Connie Gaebe last week in Bowman. Cottage School is one of nine country schoolhouses in North Dakota.

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