By Jeff Woodburn
Education used to be a strictly local undertaking, but over the past 70 years, the numbers of U.S. school districts have declined from 117,000 to about 14,000 even though the student population has almost doubled. All the while, educational observers worry mostly about class size, quality instruction and student safety. The goal is to create smaller schools within the large ones.
This day, I’m on a mission to visit one of New Hampshire’s last operating one-room schoolhouses. These schools once dotted the rural landscape, but as transportation improved, they gave way to larger schools. I’m attracted to things that have a history, evolved naturally and are mostly small in size. Organizations typically get complicated, cold and corrupt as they grow larger. For some reason, the Blue School, with an enrollment of 18 students, bucked this trend and remains today a vibrant part of this tiny White Mountain hamlet.
Days before my visit, I placed a call to the school. It was not answered by Claire Cochran, the Head Teacher, but one of her students. She was busy, he explained, and would have to call me back. She did and a date was set, and I’d have to get up early to get there by 8 a.m. With a population of 376, Landaff, like the Blue School, is hard to find.
I was already a few minutes late when I turned on to Mill Brook Road. I soon passed an old dairy farm that encompassed both sides of the winding road (fortunately the cows were not crossing the road as happened on my return hours later). Moments afterward, I reached an intersection of two country roads. A simple baseball field was a better indicator than the plain Cape-styled house that is the Blue School. There is not a house in view, yet little room to park. Parking wasn’t a concern when the school was built in 1858. Once inside, I’m greeted by a dozen or so (18 to be exact) youngsters ranging from Kindergarten to third grade, who are showing me everything from their artwork to new shoes.
Soon enough, they begin their day with the pledge of allegiance and a patriotic song with Mrs. Cochrane and two students on the piano. Instruction moves seamlessly across different genres – including the old-fashioned lecture style to multiage grouping techniques to student-centered, projected-based activities. Effortlessly, Cochrane moves across grade levels providing short instructions, assigning a task, modeling how to do it and with a few questions assesses their understanding of the activity.
“I differentiate,” she says, “by necessity.” A one-room school teacher must be a “jack of all trades,” and learn to improvise, be flexible, and like independence.
This routine is drilled into them for four years, and the students follow it without pause. Transitioning students from grade to grade typically involves a new teacher each year with a different style and personality. It takes children time – sometimes a few months – to make the full adjustment. Four years with a score of students also gives the teacher the time to really get to know the kids, and this Cocraine says ensures “nobody falls through the cracks.”
It is easy to be charmed by the Blue School. By all statistical accounts, it is a success. Despite or because of its size, it has the key ingredients that generally make schools successful, including strong parental and community involvement, high attendance rate, and a small student-teacher ratio. It is a practical reminder that education is about inspiring learning in children, not designing efficient, specialized systems. In this day and age, the Blue School is certainly easy to miss, but hard to forget.