The rise and fall of the one-room school

The one-room school, where one teacher taught children of all ages, holds a special place in the history of rural America, including Kansas.

But the fact is, by the early 1900s, the one-room school was on its way out like the horse and buggy.

In the decade from 1917-18 to 1927-28, the number of one-teacher schools decreased from 195,397 to 153,306 in the United States, according to a comprehensive study done in 1942 by the Kansas Legislative Research Department.

The drop in one-room schools in Kansas was part of this national trend as mechanized farming, among other factors, pushed people into the towns and cities.

Nearly 8,000 one-room schools were operating in Kansas in the early 1900s. But by the1920s and 1930s, between 250 and 300 schools were shutting down each year. In 1941-42, more than 1,600 schools closed.

The “Closed Schools in Kansas” report to the Legislature from 75 years ago noted that while some expressed misgivings about the closing of a school, closing schools was actually desirable.

“Kansas ranks third highest among the states in the number of school units and third lowest in average enrollment per unit. In other words, Kansas appears over-organized for school purposes … ,” the report said.

And the report noted that the closing school movement wasn’t dictated top-down from the government, but was a natural “grass roots movement which arose independently and spontaneously in separate communities because of local circumstances and immediate needs.”

The closing school movement spread through Kansas like wildfire. In addition to changes in agriculture, some one-room schools yielded to competition. Kansans actively sought better education opportunities for their children.

“The preference for graded school centers would indicate that many parents in rural areas want their children to have certain advantages offered by graded schools, not found in schools having but one teacher,” the report said.

And some of the small schools succumbed to the killer economic one-two punch: high per pupil costs and low property valuations.

World War II also played a role creating a teacher shortage. “The war has become a contributing factor to the closing of schools by creating conditions in which teachers are attracted to more remunerative occupations,” the report said.

By the 1950s, the era of the one-room school was almost over but not before thousands of Kansas students had become part of its history.

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