Kayla Gahagan

Closure of South Dakota rural schools sparks fears of the end of an era

Teachers and parents say school consolidation marginalizes rural communities and their children

MILESVILLE, South Dakota ­— There’s no cafeteria here, much less a teacher’s lounge. So during lunch, the school’s eight students — ranging from kindergarten to seventh grade — gather around two desks and eat in the same classroom as the teacher and an aide.

The students tease and chide one another like siblings. One of the girls admits it’s a lot like family at Milesville School — and that’s perhaps not surprising, since the students have known one another most of their lives.

“I love it here,” says teacher Tracey Hand.

However beloved America’s rural schools may be, many of them face an uphill battle as more school districts across the country face budget cuts.

“It’s not too far away, and it will be a thing of the past,” said Nette Meade, a teacher who was on the losing end of a battle to keep open the doors of Spring Creek School in Custer County in South Dakota. “We fought a good fight. I could see what was coming.”

Meade used to ride to school on a horse. In the 1950s she attended a one-room schoolhouse on the border of North and South Dakota with a barn, an outhouse and no running water.

She became a teacher, working first at North Dakota’s Department of Education but later returning to her roots, teaching at rural schools in several South Dakota communities. But a debate that rages in many rural communities — how to keep small schools open in the face of shrinking budgets — led her to quit her last job, at a remote two-room schoolhouse in western South Dakota. She now teaches at a school on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

Students at Milesville School during recess.
Kayla Gahagan

Spring Creek is just one of many rural schools shuttered in recent years.

There was a time when such schools were plentiful, dotting the country in remote, agricultural communities. But the number has significantly declined over the last century, in part because of the trend of consolidating schools.

In 1929 there were almost 250,000 public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number fell to fewer than 100,000 by 2010.That number fell to less than 100,000 by 2010. According to the South Dakota Department of Education, the number of school districts in the state fell from 172 to 151 between 2003 and 2013. In 1976, there were 196 districts.

The Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT), a national nonprofit organization, points out that more than 9.7 million students are enrolled in rural school districts, accounting for more than 20 percent of public school students in the U.S.

Rural student population growth exceeds the rates for nonrural districts. The number of rural students enrolled nationwide increased by 136,884 from 2008 to 2009, while nonrural student enrollment decreased by 54,162.

“These enrollment shifts are relatively small, of course. As part of a longer trajectory, however, they attest to the continued and expanding salience of rural education for the nation’s public education system as a whole,” reads an annual RSCT report, “Why Rural Matters.”

The South Dakota Department of Education declined a request for comment on school consolidation.

Robert Mahaffey, communications director at RSCT, argues that communities need to be creative in the face of school budget cuts, including using rural schools for multiple purposes, such as health and dental care, fitness or entertainment.

“The school is so integral in the health and vitality and sustainability of rural communities,” Mahaffey said. “We must, as a nation, invest in rural places and create opportunities for them. It’s not just about money.”

These enrollment shifts are relatively small, of course. As part of a longer trajectory, however, they attest to the continued and expanding salience of rural education for the nation’s public education system as a whole.

‘Why Rural Matters’

report from the Rural School and Community Trust

The students and teachers in Milesville agree. The school, built in the middle of cornfields and sunflowers, is accessible only by long country roads riddled with washboard ruts and slick mud on a recent rainy afternoon.

The classroom has all the trappings of a modern education — a teacher, the Internet, a whiteboard, homework and recess. But there are striking differences in how the students are educated.

On a recent school day, two students were in the kitchen, listening to a book on tape before they read it out loud. Four older students worked independently for much of the day, taking guidance and mini-lessons from Hand when needed.

Because there are so few students, they spend a lot of time together. Regardless of age, they eat lunch together, push each other on the swings at recess and help one another in class.

The students help clean the school once a week, and parents plow snow in winter.

“It’s more relaxed,” said Lana Elshere, a teacher’s aide who has been at the school for a decade. “It’s flexible.”

Autumn Parsons, 13, has attended the school since kindergarten and is in class with her younger sister Kamri, 10.

“I like the freedom,” Autumn said. “Sometimes I miss having friends my age. But I’m getting more experiences, probably.” She is the only student in her grade.

Meade said multilevel classrooms can greatly benefit students, explaining that a struggling third-grader can hear first- and second-grade lessons again and an advanced fourth grader benefits from overhearing fifth-grade lessons.

“They talk about things in education like differentiated teaching now,” she said, referring to tailoring education to individual needs. “That was invented in a country school. It’s the last hands-on, common-sense education method in the U.S. It’s just irreplaceable.”

Lana Elshere, a teacher’s aide at Milesville School, works with kindergartner Paul Piroutek, left, and first-grader Connor Hovland.
Kayla Gahagan

Hand added that having few students doesn’t mean less work for teachers.

“There’s more preparation than normal,” she said, with the span of ages requiring her to be ready with multiple subjects for multiple grades every day.

She farms with her husband about 40 miles from the school. Philip, S.D., where her daughter attends high school, is 33 miles from Milesville. Because of the distance, she and her daughter rent a place in Philip and go home to the farm on weekends.

Travel distance is at the heart of many of the issues surrounding rural schools, with districts with rural, suburban and urban schools attempting to balance the needs of all their families.

Melissa Whitney is the mother of an 8-year-old who attended Spring Creek before it closed. Years ago, her parents fought the school board to keep Spring Creek open when she was a student there. A generation later, she did the same.

But facing several million dollars in budget cuts as well as a reduction in the state’s tax levy, the board voted to close two of the county’s rural schools, including Spring Creek.

The RSCT’s Mahaffey said that that’s a common story and that when schools close, other aspects of rural life suffer.

“The sense of community, job opportunities — there’s an impact on civic participation because oftentimes that’s where people go to vote,” he said.

Whitney said that since Spring Creek closed, garbage service has ceased and the roads are no longer plowed. Custer County didn’t return a request for comment on the reduction of services.

That school district provided students a ride to and from a school in a suburb, which has helped families who would have spent hundreds of dollars each month transporting their kids to other schools. But it’s a double-edged sword: Whitney’s son’s new school is 25 miles from her house on country roads. He leaves at 6:30 each morning and doesn’t get home until almost 5 in the evening.

“Our kids are being punished because of where they live,” she said. “They think, ‘It’s only six kids. It doesn’t matter if we close the school,’ but it’s a huge impact.”

It feels just like family at Milesville School, with footwear littering a hallway.
Kayla Gahagan

In 1998 the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overturned a decision by a school district to close a rural school, partly because its students would have had to endure lengthy bus rides to and from another school. The court ruled that the long commute would interfere with students’ study time, their ability to participate in extracurricular activities and their educational achievement in general.

Mahaffey said the school funding formula is largely to blame for the closures, with an average of only 8 to 10 percent of funding coming from the federal government and the rest from state and local property tax levies. “We fund based on ZIP codes, which is unjust. If you’re a kid who lives in a remote, high poverty tax base, where does the money come from for that school?”

Some school districts say they have to take it year by year. The Meade County School District in South Dakota is spread across 3,200 square miles and includes six rural schools.

District Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said that although finances play a part, it’s not the whole picture.

“You can’t say that it’s taking X amount of money and we’ll try and make it work,” he said. “You have to think of what’s best for kids.”

And yet Meade County has, like other school districts, closed or temporarily closed rural schools when numbers dip too low.

“We’re very conscious of ensuring parents and their kids do have access to quality education, within a reasonable driving distance,” said Bev Rosenboom, principal of the Meade County rural schools. “If we close sites, we know there are some people who have to drive 50 to 60 miles.”

Meade fears what will be lost if more rural schools are closed.

“When they lock the doors on the last country school, they will have lost an era,” she said.

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