As small schools across the Northern Plains consolidate, a town fights to preserve its rural, two-room schoolhouse.
By Cindy Long
The spelling and grammar lesson in Steven Podoll’s classroom is a little like the changing of the guard. “Fifth-graders, please come up,” Podoll calls. Two students push back their chairs and rise to meet him at a table in the front of the room, passing two fourth-graders on their way back to their seats with their assignment. Half an hour later, two sixth-graders replace the fifth-graders. Finally, the seventh-grader is called up. And so it goes for math, science, reading, and the rest of the subjects the fourth- through eighth-graders in Podoll’s class study at this two-classroom rural school in Baldwin, North Dakota.
The Baldwin School sits on a small hill in the center of “town”—just behind the hand-printed “Welcome to Baldwin” sign and across the railroad tracks from a white clapboard post office the size of a toolshed. It overlooks the wide northern plains that roll on for miles before meeting the sky.
The town itself lies on a country road east of Highway 83, about 15 miles into the sloping grasslands of the open prairie north of Bismarck. The population hovers around 54 or 55, according to the local postmaster. A community of farmers and ranchers, the people of Baldwin have for generations worked the land through storms, drought, grassfires, and blizzards. Like fluctuating crops of grain, the town has grown and flourished, withered and shrunk. But it’s always endured, thanks in large part to the town school that first opened its doors in 1908.
For those who live in Baldwin and other small towns across the country’s Great Plains, the prairie isn’t just a place, it’s a way of life—and one that may be drawing to a close as farmers sell off land and livestock, urban areas sprawl, and small towns dwindle. With them go the country schoolhouses that once dotted the landscape. North Dakota alone had more than 4,700 one-room schools in the early 1900s. Now only a handful remain, and as is the case elsewhere in the Midwest, state laws and declining populations are prompting many small schools to either consolidate or close.
Often, a town’s school is its last foothold. When the school closes, the town dies. And that’s exactly what the people of Baldwin hope to prevent. “If the school closed, it would be as if Baldwin suffered a stroke,” says Podoll. “It might survive, but barely.”
This year, there are no eighth-graders in Podoll’s class, which has just seven students—two each in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, and one seventh-grader, a tall, blonde girl named Tori, who often helps the younger students, including her sixth-grade brother, Travis. Next door in the K–3 classroom, fellow teacher Beth Duey has eight students—a few of them with siblings in Podoll’s class.
Over the years, the population of the school has reflected the prosperity of the town. When it first opened in 1908, eight years after Baldwin was founded, teacher W.E. Yeater (gender not recorded) had 26 students and earned $50 a month. The population held steady through the teens and twenties, growing to 37 students in 1934—a class that, according to the records, included six “farm boys,” six “farm girls,” 12 “town boys,” and 13 “town girls.” Then the Dust Bowl spread northward and depression gripped the country. By 1937, just 11 students were enrolled in the Baldwin School.
Slowly, the town population rebounded. By the 1950s school enrollment was back in the 30s and 40s, but Baldwin was never the same. In its heyday, the town boomed with banks, hotels, grain elevators, a lumber yard, newspaper, train depot—even a dance hall. A series of fires razed many businesses, others simply closed their doors. Today, the center of town consists of a post office, a railroad track crossing, a handful of houses, and the Baldwin School.
That list might get shorter if North Dakota’s state legislature passes a bill that would require elementary schools with fewer than 100 students to consolidate with a district that has a high school. After the eighth grade, Baldwin students currently have a choice between high schools in Bismarck to the south or the “bigger small town” of Wilton to the north.
Although the Baldwin school wouldn’t immediately close—the town must vote whether to keep it open—residents feel the passage of S.B. 2333 would make it inevitable. “It’s taxation without representation,” says Podoll. “It would take local control of the school away from Baldwin, and it would divert property taxes to the [consolidated] district. Nobody in Baldwin wants this to happen. Everyone realizes that when you stop funding schools, towns suffer.”
According to Marty Strange, policy director at the Rural Schools and Community Trust, a national nonprofit addressing the relationship between schools and communities, consolidation is “hot in areas with depressed rural economies and where urban areas are growing fast.” Both descriptions fit Baldwin. A prolonged three-year drought has sapped local farmers, and the edge of Bismarck is creeping closer, with Baldwin sitting in the shadow of Bismarck’s new Super Wal-Mart, a short 15-minute drive down the highway.
The argument for consolidation, Strange says, is that it lowers taxes for the citizens of rural towns and provides children with access to a wider array of classes and services. “But people know their local schools work,” he says. “And rural America has paid through the nose for the privilege of having good schools in their communities. They’ve shown time and again that they’re willing to sacrifice to keep them.”
That’s been the case in Baldwin, where town residents have repeatedly voted to raise their mill levies to keep the school open, according to Gerry Ann Small, an aide at the Baldwin School. Her husband and three children attended the school, and she’s quick to point out that all of her kids remained on the honor roll in high school after graduating from Baldwin. “Our kids get a solid education here,” she says. “A Bismarck teacher once told me she could always pick out the country kids—they were ready to study, polite, and always willing to help their neighbor,” she says.
The legislation is coming up for a vote again this year, and “they’re in for another fight,” says Small. “This school is the heart and soul of our community.”
On the first day of school, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter visits the Baldwin School for the first flag-raising of the year (the flag pole was donated by the VFW in honor of five Baldwin soldiers killed in the Vietnam War). In December, the town gathers at the school for its holiday program, and the students go caroling from farmhouse to farmhouse, where they’re greeted with warm cookies or cider. For Valentine’s Day, grandparents are invited to school for breakfast. The students even organized a Youth Citizen’s League so they could volunteer within the community. They raised money to help a newlywed couple whose home burned down, for a local firefighter badly injured on the job, and to buy clothing and winter gear for needy children.
And then there are the basketball games. Two coed teams—fourth through eighth grade, and second through third, compete against four other rural schools in Burleigh County. The first-graders are the cheerleaders, complete with uniforms and pom-poms. “When the Baldwin Bullets play, that gym is plum full with folks from town,” Small says.
One of their most loyal fans is the postmaster, Gail Gordon, who was born in Baldwin in 1942 and has lived there ever since. Gordon believes the school, like the post office, is central to Baldwin’s small-town character. “When a small town loses its school or its post office, it loses its identity,” she says.
Gordon’s father was the postmaster when she started out as a clerk in 1958. Before the building was converted into a post office, it was St. John’s Lutheran Church (the pulpit is still intact). Before it became a church, it was a “rolling schoolhouse” that sat perched atop timbers and was pulled by horses from field to field where farm children could take a break for their lessons. When Gordon stands at her counter, she looks out at the present-day school yard, where she can watch the kids play during recess. “I went to school there, my dad went to school there, and my daughter went to school there,” she says. “It’s always been a fine school.”
It still is. The students benefit from a low student-teacher ratio; access to technology (there’s nearly one computer for every student, all with wireless Internet connections); a built-in tutoring system with older kids helping younger students; and a sense of community that’s difficult to develop in larger schools. And because there is just one teacher for multiple grades, there’s a consistency that allows the teacher to more effectively track progress, address problems, and become a support system.
“I teach one student for five years, every day, for five or six hours,” Podoll says. “In a setting like this, these students become a member of your family. How can I not do my best to see these students succeed? How can I not care about them and their futures?”
The start of the school day is almost like a scene from Little House on the Prairie. Podoll stands on the steps and rings a bell, alerting the kids playing in the school yard that it’s time to come in for class. After the Pledge of Allegiance, the students each pull out their water bottles for a 20-second drink. “Why do we drink water each morning?” Podoll asks. “Because it goes straight to our brains,” the kids chime back.
While most of the curriculum is broken down by grade, Podoll tries to find a few lessons appropriate for all levels. One is the lesson in daily oral language, where Podoll writes “bad” sentences on the board and the students find the mistakes. He also teaches the students a new word of the day—he got the idea the year he received a “Word of the Day” calendar for Christmas. The favorite all-class activity is the daily reading period, when Podoll reads aloud. “He always stops at a cliffhanger,” says Small. “That way, the kids want to read the next chapter. He’s really turned them on to reading.”
Podoll grew up in Hazen, North Dakota, about an hour’s drive from Baldwin. Valedictorian of his high school class of 53 students, he got a full academic scholarship to the University of North Dakota, where he studied communications with hopes of becoming an ESPN announcer, until he became “somewhat disillusioned with the behavior of the modern athlete.” He decided to become a teacher, not only for the chance to work with kids, but also because he wanted to touch as many lives as possible.
“There hasn’t been a day since that I’ve regretted the decision,” he says. “Getting to know these kids and being an integral part of their lives is an experience that is at times impossible to describe.”
His students have no such trouble describing him—and funny tops their list of adjectives. Podoll cracks jokes about canceling recess (the students check each day to make sure it’s still on), he accuses the students of turning his hair gray (he’s only 29), and he uses words like “ba-bada-bingo” when the kids nail an answer. He’s also fond of practical jokes.
“He’s fun and smart,” says Chantelle, one of the two fifth-graders. She lives on a farm with 350 cattle, three horses, and “a bunch of cats and kittens.” One of her daily chores is to feed and water the horses in the barn; her horse, Cody, is sorrel with a white blaze on his forehead. She also helps with the herd, giving shots to the calves. “I’ve been kicked a few times,” she says.
She might stay in Baldwin and help her brothers with the farm when she grows up, or she might become a marine biologist. She’s still deciding.
In the meantime, her grandmother drives her the 10 miles to school each day, and Chantelle says she couldn’t imagine going anywhere else. “It’s not too big. I like little schools,” she says. “You get lots of help, the kids are nice—nobody is mean. I think it’s the best education there is.”