The nostalgic time of Little House on the Prairie is gone forever. And with it, most of the 190,000 one-room schools that dotted the landscape of the United States 100 years ago.
Those small schools, consisting of one classroom with a single teacher teaching academic basics to several grade levels, made education possible for children living in remote areas to get an education.
As we fast-forward to the 21st century, we must ask: “Are one-room schools now simply relics of days gone by?” Although the number of single-room schools have dwindled, the North American Division and, by extension, the Lake Union Conference, support the concept of one-room schools because they continue to play such an important role in Adventist education. Today, the Lake Union has 65 schools which offer elementary education. Of that number, 28—almost half—are one-room schools.
While it’s true that larger schools have more staff, bigger facilities and additional programs, one-room schools have their own unique features which students, parents, and teachers alike have come to value.
Photo Caption: Two Indiana schools, Columbus (left) and Richmond (right), reopened their one-room schools after being closed more than a decade. Photo Credit Christa McConnell
Our denomination’s first elementary school—a one-room school—opened in 1880 in Battle Creek. Other communities caught the vision and church schools began to appear across the country.
The first Adventist church school in Illinois was located in Aledo, close to the Iowa border. The school opened in the 1940s and Ramona Trubey, her two sisters, and two cousins, Bob and Larry, made up the entire student population.
Trubey remembers that the church members worked together to provide a school for the two families, an investment she felt was worth it. “I wouldn’t trade those days for anything,” she says. “With only five of us in school, we had a lot of one-on-one time with the teacher, which made it easy to get the help we needed to progress quickly.”
Another student who treasures his time at a one-room school was Neal VanderWaal who attended the Rockford, Illinois, school from 1947 to 1950. The school was attached to the rear of the church, with a playground which was postage-stamp size—just a city lot. VanderWaal recounts that, while they didn't have all the educational opportunities many other kids had, they developed character.
He recalls: “We read Bible stories, but also learned life lessons from the True Education Readers and the stories our teacher read to us. I learned honesty, patriotism, determination and temperance. We learned lessons of fair play, cooperation and sharing. Every morning we pledged allegiance to the flag. I learned reverence for God, and respect and love for everyone regardless of their color or beauty.”
Photo Caption: Although the number of one-room schools has dwindled, the North American Division and, by extension, the Lake Union, support the concept of one- room schools such as this one in Columbus, Ind., led by Angela Clark, because they continue to play such an important role in Adventist education. Photo Credit Christa McConnell
Jennifer Landis attended a one-room school in Ionia, Michigan, for four years and was the only student in the upper grades. She recollects an enjoyable time in the same classroom as her sister who is five years younger. “I was able to get my work done quickly and then help the teacher with grading and other projects.” Jennifer’s calling as a teacher was solidified during that positive experience.
Beth Nelson spent only two years in a one-room church school in Almond, Wisconsin, but those two years also influenced her choice of life work. “My teacher was very spiritual and caring. She once said that she hoped that all of us would be in the Lord’s work someday. She was the only person that ever said anything like that. It made such an impression on me and led me to go into education and teach at church schools in Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Former educator and missionary, Brooke Sadler, was a charter member of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, church school and graduated from the 8th grade in 1955. He recalls his teacher, Dorothea Williams, managing her class of 30 students effectively. “It was crowded,” he remembers, “but our teacher was such an inspiration in the way she treated us and guided us. It was a great place to go to school.”
Danita Fish also has fond memories of her years at the Adventist Christian Elementary in Indiana, and singled out her teacher, Janelle Ruba. “She was able to give me so much one-on-one time, so I got the help I needed, and I retained more,” says Fish, who’s thankful that her 5-year-old son is now a kindergartner at the same school. “I couldn’t believe how he started reading after only a few weeks.”
Studies have shown that students learn better when they have to teach the material to others. Peer-based and team-based learning also have been found to be quite beneficial, particularly to prepare students for success in workplaces where group-based work across teams of different ages and backgrounds is prevalent.
Linda Fuchs, the Lake Union Education Superintendent, taught for 26 years before entering her administration positions and treasures the three years she spent in a one-room school. She, too, bore witness to the effectiveness of peer-to-peer teaching.
“The younger students loved the older ones, and the older students felt a responsibility toward the younger, often explaining how to do an assignment, helping them warm up their food in the microwave, or teaching them how to jump rope or shoot a basketball,” she notes, adding that “one-room schools give the older students many opportunities to learn leadership skills which they can use all through their life.”
Seven of Linda Morrow’s children attended the local Adventist Christian Elementary one-room church school in Indiana, and she now has a grandson at the same school. She has stayed involved in the school and cherishes the family atmosphere. She welcomes “the good role models Josiah has had with the upper grade students.”
Also reminiscing about the mutually beneficial partnership formed in a single-room school is Cathy Buell, a recently retired teacher in Michigan. “The younger students looked up to the older ones and often listened more carefully to what they are saying, especially when it came to spiritual matters. And working with the smaller children helped the older students learn patience.”
Photo Caption: Small schools, consisting of one classroom with a single teacher, such as Elvie Davis of the Richmond, Ind., school (above), instructing the academic basics to several grade levels, continue to make education possible for children living in remote areas to get an education. Photo Credit: Christa McConnell
While some of the one-room schools have grown into larger schools, others had to close their doors for various reasons. That was true of the Columbus and Richmond schools in the Indiana Conference. But in 2019, the congregations connected to those former schools began to discuss the possibility of once again providing their young people with Christian education.
After contacting the education superintendent, both churches began working to turn their dreams into reality. And when the school year started last August, the Maple Creek Adventist Academy in Columbus and the Richmond Adventist Elementary School opened their doors after being closed for more than a decade.
Thomas Clark pastors in the Columbus area and says that connecting a school to the church really helped build momentum with the members in his district. “We had a mission, and the people came together, working on a common goal. We’ve also noticed that our students’ extended families have been attending more of our church functions and mingling with our church members.”
Pastor Blaine Fults, formerly of the Columbus district, noticed an increase in church attendance since their school opened. Jim Balkovek, one of the church elders, added that church members have personally invested their time in the school, teaching art classes, leading out in worships, a Week of Prayer, and other types of presentations.
One-room schools have been, are, and will always be an integral part of Adventist education. Only in heaven will we begin to understand the vital role one-room schools have had in the lives of students who passed through their doors.
Renee Coffee just retired after working 45 years as a teacher and an associate superintendent in the Michigan and Indiana conferences. She now hopes to devote more time to her love of music with the hope that she’ll be able to conquer her cello someday.
My home was about two-and-a-half miles from the school. We could walk there across the fields and over the fences, ride our horses, or hitch our old horse to the buggy and ‘drive’ ourselves to school.
In mild weather, horseback was the choice of the day. Our lunch pails would slide up and down the side of the horse, and at noon time we would pick the horsehair out of our lunch buckets before we ate our lentil, mashed potato or peanut butter sandwiches, along with an apple or a homemade cookie.
An old pot belly stove sat on one side and kept us warm in the winter months.
One cold day when I was in the fourth grade, I heard crackling noises, and finally I looked up to see flames of fire around the stove pipe. I raised my hand frantically (we were not allowed to speak without raising our hand and getting permission). The teacher finally acknowledged me, and I pointed to the stove pipe and said, “I think our school is on fire.”
Our level-headed teacher sent one of the boys running to his home to alert his parents, who also called my parents. Then she told us to get our books and take them to the tree line away from the school. Soon our parents arrived and put out the fire, which left a large hole on one wall, which the men of the church rebuilt.
The little schoolhouse is gone now, but the memories and the life experiences will stay with me forever.
One-Room Schools Holding on in Rural America, NPR, December 22, 2005