In Pleasant Valley, an Intimate Education

By Beacon Staff

Perhaps the most telling difference between Pleasant Valley Elementary School and other schools is the lack of noise: The slamming of locker doors, bells and loudspeakers are absent. The one-room schoolhouse is nearly silent, except for the sounds of its sole teacher moving among the school’s five students, offering help as they work independently on grade-specific lessons. Outside, several inches of snow fall steadily on the country road and forested landscape. Save for a U.S. Mail truck, no vehicles pass by for several hours.

Established in 1904, Pleasant Valley is the only one-room schoolhouse remaining in Flathead County. Located about 20 miles northwest of Marion near the Lincoln-Flathead County line, it takes almost an hour to travel the mostly two-lane gravel road from Marion to the small schoolhouse and teacher’s residence.

A dwindling part of American heritage, one-room schools, once used to serve sprawling ranch and farm communities, are fading as the country’s population gathers in more urban centers or better transportation allows students to commute farther faster. In the 1800s, more than 190,000 of these schools existed. Today, there are less than 400 nationwide.

Yet, while numbers in Montana have also fallen, the state remains a bastion of sorts for the rural relics. With 61 one-room schoolhouses still in operation, it claims the most of any state.

The subjects taught at Pleasant Valley are not unlike those taught in most other schools, but each class is held in the same room and taught by the same teacher. With only five students, it may seem first-year teacher Tracy Gross’ workload would be light, but in many ways it means she has five times the work.

Gross spends her evenings and weekends preparing five curriculums ranging from first grade to seventh for every subject, from physical education to math. As she walks around the room helping students, she must shift from playing with plastic dinosaurs in a sand pit to long division.

“People sometimes misunderstand the smallness in numbers as meaning her job is easier, but that also indicates a huge variety of subjects and lesson planning,” Marcia Sheffels, Flathead County superintendent, said. “The amount of planning and organization needed for her job is astronomical.”

And then there are the chores teachers at larger schools may take for granted. During the winter, Gross wakes up early to shovel. She helps the kids make their lunch and watches them at recess. She answers the phones and makes copies. She’s working on getting a permit so she can drive the school’s bus. One-room schools don’t have janitors, lunch ladies, secretaries or bus drivers.

One-room schools like Pleasant Valley are evidence of the contradictions born of Montana’s changing landscape. In Flathead County, where booming growth necessitated construction of a new multi-million dollar high school last year, a one-room schoolhouse is still just as necessary.

The primary challenge to keeping such a small school open is finding the right teacher. Sheffels never lacks for applicants, but turnover can be high within a teacher’s first few years at the school: “If they make it through the first two, then they’re usually here quite a while. It either works for them or it doesn’t.”

“It’s absolutely the teacher who makes or breaks the school,” Kathy Jackson, Pleasant Valley’s district clerk, said. “They have to be extraordinary to handle the workload.”

They also have to be able to handle the isolation. Gross, who attended the University of Montana as a non-traditional student after her own kids graduated from high school, said she enjoys the quiet solitude of the school’s rural location, and her husband, who drives semi-trucks, keeps her company between his trips. But she misses the professional support network other schools offer with fellow teachers and administrators.

“I can’t walk to the classroom next door to ask for advice,” she said. “It’s just me all the time.”

And, the pay, like most teaching jobs in Montana, is low. A study by the Montana Small School Alliance in 2007 reported the average teacher salary at the state’s rural elementary schools was about $25,000 – more than $13,000 less than the state average for all schools. The lowest-paid teacher made $13,000. The highest, a 30-year veteran, made almost $54,000.

Gross does medical transcriptions from her home to buoy her income. Her weekly check from about 10 hours of transcription work nearly equals her weekly earnings from the school. But Gross doesn’t complain. She acknowledges the shortcomings and challenges of her job matter-of-factly, and returns quickly to the positive aspects of the one-room school.

She’s able to be creative with a large and varied store of curriculum materials to find the best match for each individual student. And, there’s no falling behind in Gross’s classes. “If I had a class of 30, I’d schedule a week to do something and if some of the kids didn’t get it in a week, well, I’d still have to move on because I’d have 25 who were ready for the next step,” she said. “Here, if they don’t get it in a week, we do it for another week. It actually is no child left behind.”

While her students may lack contact with peers, they learn social skills by working with varied age groups. Older students can help the younger ones, and younger students can pick up higher curriculum to which they normally wouldn’t be exposed. In a group science lesson, the school’s first-grade student conversed easily about solvents and solutes.

Sheffels credits the Pleasant Valley community with keeping the small school alive. Schools with an average enrollment of less than 10 can’t operate without receiving an isolation status from the state. Every three years, the school reapplies to retain that status. “That district is so dedicated to that school,” Sheffels said. “The fact that it simply continues to operate is proof of the community rallying around the school.”

Enrollment may be small – over the past five years it’s averaged around five or six students – but the school is a big deal to local families, Gross said, who would either have to home school or send their children to Marion, an hour’s drive. “This school is no less important to its community than a big school in Kalispell. It’s just a different environment.”

Donna Monk has owned land in the area with her husband Bob for 62 years. In the 1930s Bob attended his junior high school years at Pleasant Valley, and the couple’s four children attended school there. She remembers when, bolstered by a larger ranching and logging community, the school’s enrollment was in the 20s.

“We used to have weekly card parties in the old school and it was always used for a community meeting,” she said.

Community members are proud to have a school in the last area in the county deemed rural enough to claim its own. “I guess being the last of the best makes us want it to survive,” Jackson said. “It’s a piece of history, a piece of old Montana and I think it’s important we keep it going.”