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A walk through Iowa’s one-room schoolhouses

As we look to the future in education, it’s also meaningful to consider the past and how far we’ve come.

Take the one-room school house, once ubiquitous across Iowa’s country landscape. Numbering an astonishing 12,000 to 14,000 at one time, depending on what report you use, Iowa had more one-room school houses than any other state in the union.

Though the last one-room school houses closed their doors permanently in 1967 through legislative decree, many of the structures remain today in various states of decay or renovation. They were spaced throughout the countryside in intervals no more than four miles apart, ensuring students had no more than two miles to walk to school.

See more photos of Iowa's one-room schoolhouses.

Most students in the country school ranged in age from first through eighth grade, though a few would stay on to get their high school diplomas. The teacher of the one-room school often never herself went beyond the eighth grade. The expectations on her – professionally and privately – were extensive. On the personal side, it was expected that she live with a family in a nearby farm, attend church, avoid being seen with male suitors and remain single.

Professionally, she would arrive first thing in the morning. On a cold winter’s day, for instance, she would have to stoke up a fire in the wood-burning stove. At the appointed time – usually 9:00 a.m. – she would ring the bell – either a bell in the cupola atop of the building or a hand-held version – to summon students to their seats. She was the chief educator and disciplinarian, juggling various age groups throughout the day. For the first 15 minutes, for instance, she may have three first-grade students learning reading. The next 15 minutes could be fifth-grade geography. And so on. By day’s end, she would sweep the floors, clean the slate boards and head home.

Beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, the class experience relied heavily on rote memorization. In one school, for instance, the teacher had the students memorize all 99 counties and the corresponding county seats in the state. Moral character and patriotism were stressed, and it was common to see chalked on the slate board something like “To do and to bear is the duty of life.”

Though short in actual playground ephemera, the acre-or-so that the school house sat on was long on imagination. Students would play games like Pom-Pom Pullaway, Fox and Geese or even Drop the Handkerchief.

Consolidations started occurring shortly after the turn of the 20th century, but they started reaching a fever pitch when the automobile – and reliable roads – became a mainstay. Turn-of-the-last-century education reform – compulsory attendance through age 14 and required curriculum and textbooks – put the one-room schools on track to eventual demise.

Today there are perhaps only 2,800 one-room schools still standing in Iowa, whether they are museums, houses, garages or even nearly reclaimed by Mother Nature.

The rural buildings remain as a testament to our earliest education endeavors of where we have come from, and where we are going.