Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Old School

Its graduation time. The air and highways are full of comings and goings. Tomorrow, the preschoolers at Tarkio Kids Korner will receive certificates promoting them to kindergarten, though it will take an entire circus to accomplish the task. The photo op on the stage at Tarkio Elementary reminds me of "graduation" days of years past at long gone Westboro R-4.

Westboro was long past its peak when little Lee Hurst attended her first day of kindergarten. At that time, there were still enough kids to keep the art class as the sole occupant of the third floor. The old brick school had four levels, built on a pattern repeated all over the Midwest. The first floor classrooms could have comfortably seated forty students, but the little kindergarten kids would have had no trouble eluding their teacher during a game of hide and seek in that cavernous space, so the school library was housed in the kindergarden classroom. Even more convenient for Miss Walter, the combination teacher, librarian, and administrator of Westboro school.

Like country schools of bygone days, kids from first grade through sixth shared classroom and teacher with another grade. With enrollment of 50 kids (when Lee was six) shrinking to 37 (when Ben was a student), even combined classes left perhaps 12-15 kids per class. What Westboro lacked in facilities, comfort and infrastructure, it compensated for with personal attention.

What a gentle introduction to organized school Miss Walter gave a small child! A half day of school and a ride home for lunch on the little bus. The real work began in the first grade in the classroom of one of the finest teachers I've ever known. From reading to geography, from spelling words to history, the marvelous spectrum of knowledge opened up on a scale each child could manage and appreciate. Every week we parents would get a report on the individual doings of our kid and marvel at the varied range of activities designed with our son or daughter in mind. Without internet, satellite, or any other of the other aids we now take for granted, the building blocks were laid row by row in a stout foundation.

The little school resembled a family in more than one way. While other school cafeterias reap ridicule for the daily provisioning of the student body, the staff of the kitchen at Westboro somehow managed to make homecooked meals from the bulk cans and ingredients of the basement kitchen. The years Blake was on the school board, we took advantage of the yearly invitation to savor a Thanksgiving feast on our plastic platter.

The upper grades had the duty of reading to the little kids: a double dipper! The youngsters looked forward to the stories and the big kids got some extra practice in reading and patience. I don't mean to suggest Westboro school was a paragon of educational excellence by any means. Heading south to junior high led to all kinds of adjustments, academic and otherwise. Art and music teachers, PE teachers, were hard to attract to a little school with declining enrollment and part time positions at best. Some of the best music teachers couldn't make the grade with the state regulations; finally, the rules that were burdensome for small schools sounded the death knell for districts as tiny as Westboro. All the volunteerism, all the community support, could not overcome simple demographics.

I clearly remember the chilly spring day when the PTA used all its funds for one last bash for the kids: a trip to Worlds of Fun. I chaperoned Ben's class....all three of them. They were still too short for the big kid's rides, but we made the best of our day even so. Nowadays, we consider our R-I school small and worry about its viability.
I've turned this subject over and over in my mind, coming to different conclusions according to my inner level of optimism or pessimism. Are we better off with our small classes and individual attention? Are we worse off with our isolation and narrow employment opportunities for spouses of teachers? Are we limited in our curriculum by our small enrollment? Or does this give us the opportunity to tailor the course of study to the student? Do we expect too much....or set our sights too low?

Wherever one falls on this sliding scale, I would maintain we are hindered by our small size in the eyes of the State, with a capital S. If little schools had more leeway, we could make better use of our resources. We need the flexibility to be jacks of all trades in much the same way we small businessmen must be bookkeepers, salesmen, janitors and strategic planners on any given day. Life in this small town isn't easy: to be successful and keep a household together can feel like the guy on Ed Sullivan spinning plates on both hands, and his chin! Small towns act as buffers for our society, keeping "progress" from moving too quickly. They are repositories of accumulated custom and cultural habits. They are our history, writ small.

Ask any alum: our little schools form the ties that bind.

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