In a Class of His Own

Kindergartner celebrates graduation as lone student at last remaining one-room schoolhouse in Flathead County

By Tristan Scott
Case Metzler smiles while talking about bears with his teacher Richelle Sheets at Pleasant Valley School on May 21, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

When kindergartner Case Metzler dons his cap and gown at Pleasant Valley School’s graduation ceremony on June 9, he’ll celebrate a milestone all unto his own.

Case, whose sixth birthday falls just a few days before the ceremony, attends the only one-room schoolhouse remaining in Flathead County. And while the entire rural community will turn out for a potluck party to observe the occasion, school officials will award just one diploma – Metzler’s.

He’s been the lone student at Pleasant Valley since December, when the diminutive, red schoolhouse lost 75 percent of its student body, a total of three students, one of whom, an eighth-grade girl, rode her horse to school each morning.

“We are going to have a graduation of one, and it will be a very big celebration,” Janet Monk, a school board member and Pleasant Valley School alumnus, said.

With an annual budget of $62,000 to run the school, keeping it open to educate one student isn’t sustainable.

“If you divide $62,000 by one that is $62,000,” Monk said. “We had three other students, but two were siblings and they went back to Libby and the eighth-grader transferred to Marion School.”

But in rural Montana, and especially the ranching community of Pleasant Valley, the transient nature of the working ranches means that the student population is often in flux. By the time the other students left last winter, money for the 2015-16 budget had already been allocated.

School officials are expecting additional students in the fall, ensuring the school will remain open, and on any given day a new batch of kids might turn up at the door.

“It fluctuates a lot,” said Pleasant Valley School teacher Richelle Sheets, the school’s only instructor. “I could show up one day and there might be five kids outside the school because their families just moved here. It’s happened before.”

And while every student is entitled to a public education – and at Pleasant Valley, by all accounts, they receive a stellar one – the school has at times been a challenge for the Flathead County school district.

“Things will change, but if they don’t change we can’t be open year after year with one student,” Monk said. “We all have nostalgia for the school but that can’t happen.”

If anyone has nostalgia for Pleasant Valley School, it’s Monk, whose family history at the school runs deep. Her mother began teaching at Pleasant Valley in 1927 after graduating from Flathead High School. Driving to the school at the beginning of the school year in her father’s Ford Model T, the 18-year-old got the car stuck on Gunsight Pass and had to spend the night alone until a rancher could drag her out of the mud.

“She was a town girl and she wasn’t used to spending the night out in the cold, dark mountains,” said Monk, who was her mother’s pupil for five years.

Her aunt, Donna Monk, has owned land in the area for 62 years, and served on the Pleasant Valley School Board for four decades. In the 1930s, her husband Bob attended his junior high years at Pleasant Valley, and the couple’s four children followed suit.

Bolstered by the ranching and logging community, the student population sometimes climbed into the 20s.

Established in 1904, Pleasant Valley is 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, and more than an hour from Kalispell.

A dwindling part of American heritage, one-room schools were once a prominent part of the rural landscape, used to serve sprawling ranch and farm communities. Today, their utility is becoming a relic of the past as the country’s population converges on more urban centers, or better transportation allows students to commute.

There are fewer than 400 operational one-room schoolhouses in the country, and Montana has the most in the nation at 62, boasting at least one in each of its 56 counties, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

They’d once totaled 2,600 statewide, but the migration away from agricultural communities and into city centers has decreased the need for the small rural school.

“Montana families that farmed the land in the 19th and 20th centuries relied on these rural schools to educate their children, as the vast distances between towns made it impractical to travel to schools in populations centers,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But for young Case, one isn’t the loneliest number.

The mystique and romance associated with one-room schoolhouses – a symbol of the pioneering and settlement of the West – might be lost on the precocious redhead, but the freedom and joy of attending school at Pleasant Valley isn’t.

Inside the schoolhouse, Case proudly displays the numerous projects he and Ms. Sheets have spearheaded this spring. There’s the hydroponic garden sprouting lettuce, and an outdoor garden with carrots, potatoes, sunflowers, corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini and cucumbers.

“We’ve been growing a lot of food,” Case said, adding that although he’s only in kindergarten, he’s also “a farmer and a cowboy.”

The shelves of the school library are brimming with books, and miniature terrariums contain caterpillars, which are about to enter their chrysalis phase. If the timing is right, Case will release the butterflies at his graduation ceremony, a symbol of his own metamorphosis from kindergartner to first grade.

A notebook on his desk contains a wealth of information he gleaned from his class research project on bears, a species about which he has become a veritable fount of knowledge.

“Before hibernation, bears eat 20,000 calories a day, or about 42 hamburgers and 38 banana splits,” is one of the factoids Case documents in his illustrated report.

Outside, the sprawling schoolyard features a jungle gym and baseball field, and in the winter a heated indoor gymnasium is stocked with soccer goals, a volleyball net, basketball hoop, scooters, a bicycle, and just about any other sporting toy a boy could want to play with.

And while the little red schoolhouse stands in stark contrast against the modern bustle of city schools, representing a solitary celebration of rural Montana and the richness of its spirit and heritage, it keeps Ms. Sheets on her toes.

The workload is just as heavy whether she has one student or 15, and while the school’s district clerk, Ann Marie Becker, helps out with administrative work, Sheets is in charge of planning the curriculum, filing state and federal reports, administering tests, reporting directly to the state Office of Public Instruction and the Flathead County Superintendent of Schools, Jack Eggensperger.

She also attends the school board meetings – Case’s father, Jeremy, is on the three-member board and also coaches his tee-ball team, the Dukes – and lives in the cozy teacher’s quarters adjacent to the school with her Karelian bear dog, Casey.

This school year was her first at Pleasant Valley, and her third year as a teacher. Having spent two years teaching at Heart Butte, she’s familiar with rural schools.

“I was actually pleasantly surprised when I came to interview with all of the resources here,” she said.

Indeed, the schoolhouse, which has Internet, is decidedly more progressive than the original Pleasant Valley School.

The first Pleasant Valley School opened in 1903 in an old railroad cabin – the Great Northern Railway’s main east to west line from Kalispell to Libby ran through Pleasant Valley from 1892-1904 – but after two years it was moved about two miles east, where it sat until 1914. From 1914 to 1960, the Pleasant Valley School was situated near the junction of Lost Prairie Road and the old railroad grade, and for years School District 27 had two one-room schoolhouses.

“In my time we had two schools, one was Pleasant Valley and the other was called Lost Prairie School, but they never operated at the same time,” Monk said. “You would go from school to school and whichever school had the most kids close by, that would be the school that was open.”

When Monk attended school, the class size hovered around eight students, and sometimes dropped as low as five. In years past, the school has closed occasionally due to low or non-existent attendance. District rules say that at least two students from separate families must attend Pleasant Valley School for it to remain open.

In the case of Case, the school board made an exception because the budget had already been approved.

“It’s been very rewarding. With Case being the only student, he’s been phenomenal,” Sheets said. “He adjusted really well, he integrates with other students on field trips and at tee-ball and swimming lessons, and he enjoys the one-on-one time. He’s a character. He makes me laugh every day.”