Why they work and how – it’s not just small classes
In 1989, Nevada lawmakers hoping to magically bring back the way education was, ordered districts to cut the size of first-grade classes to 15 students per teacher.
Two years later, they expanded the mandate to second grade, and two years after that to third grade.
Now, a decade and a half-billion dollars later, everyone’s still waiting for the magic to happen.
Teachers in some of Nevada’s smallest schools say they’ll wait a long time because, while small class size is part of the equation, it’s far from the whole story.
Visits to five rural schools ranging from five to 24 students made it clear it’s more about how they teach than how many.
In a nutshell, teachers in schools from Denio on the Nevada-Oregon border of Humboldt County to Ruby Valley southeast of Elko say they teach in a different world where there’s time for individual attention, where students learn to work with those both ahead and behind them, and learn to learn on their own.
Small rural schools are not part of what Linda Bunch of Independence Valley school calls “the factory.”
“In the big schools, they cover so much material and do it superficially,” she said. “If I was teaching there, I’d probably have to do that too.”
Bunch, who has taught 25 years at the two-room school outside Tuscarora northwest of Elko, has eight students this year. She said she understands why urban schools divide students by grade, subject and ability. But she said she doesn’t think that’s the best way.
“The concept of mass educating kids, I think, is a scary one,” she said.
The rural teachers interviewed said the small classes wouldn’t make that much difference if they didn’t approach teaching differently. Bunch said most important thing her students learn is how to learn.
The key, she said, is taking the time to let them learn so they develop confidence in their ability.
Developing that independence – and self-reliance – was a common theme among the teachers.
“Education really needs to be different today from what it was 20 years ago,” said Jackie Nordling, one of two teachers for the 24 students at Ruby Valley School. “Children today need to be problem solvers and continuous learners.”
“If the only thing they come out of here with is to think for themselves, then I’ve done my job,” said Robin Oelke of Denio Elementary in northern Humboldt County.
She and the others interviewed said the very things many educators cite as the disadvantages of tiny schools – multiple grades in one class and having the same teacher year after year – are their strengths.
“In urban schools, we look for ways to keep dividing up,” said Humboldt’s rural schools principal Ron Mullanix. “Out here, there is no dividing up. No race, no sex, no age. They all work together.”
They argue that having the same students year after year lets them focus on their individual strengths and weaknesses.
“If a kid didn’t get as far in one curriculum as he should have, I just save all the papers, put them up on the bulletin board and, next year, we start again right where we stopped,” said Nordling.
“We can just give them so much more up here. You can take them as far as they can go.”
Oelke, who has 10 students from first through eighth grade in Denio, said because she knows the kids from last year, “I don’t have to waste three months getting to know them, finding out what they need.”
Bunch said continuity from one year to the next is important because every child is at a different level.
“In town, they just get their kids going their way and then they’re gone to the next grade, the next teacher,” she said. “Here, if I see something, I can pick it up again next year.”
“Here you can just keep honing in on what they need year after year,” said Cheryl Turner of Mound Valley School near Jiggs, 30 miles south of Elko.
She said the fact that students all learn different things at different speeds also supports having more than one grade in a classroom, a comment echoed by Bunch.
“They can work at their own level,” said Bunch. “In fact, I don’t think about grade. We have to face that, but I don’t gear my instruction to grade level. They can be above or below in different areas.”
Carol Dufurrena at Leonard Creek School said a good example of how well that works is the progress her three Spanish-speaking students have made in English this year. From knowing only a word or two last year, they are now reading library books and holding conversations comfortably in English.
Because she can’t hold every student’s hand every minute, Dufurrena said, every student has to be more independent.
“They have to be self sufficient and that’s definitely not taught in the big schools,” agreed Oelke. “That’s one thing the one room school house creates: independent learners.”
Teachers said it’s that independence and the willingness of older or more advanced students to help the younger ones as much as small class size that enables them to provide that one-on-one attention.
Multi-age classes also mean the younger students are exposed to what the older kids are studying.
“A first-grader can experience what the fourth-graders are doing. By the time they get there, they’ve learned some by osmosis,” said Turner.
She said that makes next year a lot less frightening as the younger students progress.
Patricia Tanner, Ruby Valley’s second teacher, said she and Nordling rely on each other as well as on the older students to make it possible for them to give needed individual attention.
All of them rejected the suggestion their graduates are somehow unprepared for the social interaction of a crowded high school.
“Here, they have to learn to deal with problems, personality conflicts with another child,” said Oelke. “It’s not like they can hide or move to another 30-kid classroom. They have to learn to get along, work it out.”
Mullanix agreed: “They’re not bashful. When they have the chance to interact with other kids, they do it very well.”
Some, especially the girls, are anxious for more social interaction by the time they hit seventh or eighth grade.
“Girls are always interested in boys at an earlier age too,” Turner said.
Bunch and the others all say their graduates typically do well in ninth grade. But Bunch said some of them slip a bit in 10th or 11th because “they’re having too much fun.”
But they said their students don’t miss much by being in a small school.
“Extra curricular activities, you can overdo a lot of that,” said Turner. “Besides, they’re active in 4-H, rodeo, soccer.”
Because some things aren’t available in rural areas and because ranch kids tend to have chores to do, Bunch, Oelke and the others said that what their students don’t have is as much empty time to waste on TV and mischief.
Beyond that, all agreed there’s also a much stronger sense of community in rural areas. Most of the ranchers are members of families that homesteaded their property 100 years ago or more. The students grew up together. Their parents grew up together.
The teachers also had high praise for the community support they receive, both individually by parents and generally for the needs of the school.
“It’s phenomenal,” she said. “It’s a different world out here.”