Success of one-room schools can teach community lessons

Liberty School, north of Springfield, is one of the former one-room and rural schools described in books by David Burton.
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - A few historic one-room schools still dot the Missouri landscape. Their history still teaches us lessons about successful communities and working together.

One-room schools still reveal valuable historical, educational and cultural lessons. Based on the hundreds of interviews I've done and the decades of research, I'd say we can take away five important lessons from the one-room school experience.

First, community is important. Many families in the Ozarks worked together to build one-room schools because they valued education.
These buildings then served as a center of education for children. Since parents and neighbors were so deeply involved, the school also became a center of community life.

Second, helping others is essential and expected. Children in a one-room school spent their days surrounded by children of all ages. At various times, students could find themselves being challenged by a lesson with an older student or mentoring a younger schoolmate.

With just one teacher, cooperation was essential. It also ingrained learning in the students because, in order to mentor another child, you must know that material well.

Third, it taught that hard work is required. In addition to having to walk to school, students had to help haul in the water, take care of the coal stove, clean the blackboards and perform a range of other chores essential to the operation and upkeep of the school. These responsibilities helped instill pride in their school and offered chances for responsibility.

Fourth, ability, not age, is key. Lessons were given according to ability and students were permitted to learn ahead or listen in on lessons.

I can't count the number of times I've heard a former student say they learned ahead by listening to other lessons. It wasn't just allowed but also was encouraged.

Finally, in one-room schools, stable and caring families were key to success. Financial support came from the families who sent children and instilled in their children respect for the teacher. A national study done a few years ago concluded that stable and supportive families were the number one reason for the success of one-room schools.

Today, the one-room schoolhouse with its smoky stove, water bucket and outhouse is a fading memory. The emergence of a statewide road system made it possible for schools to consolidate and transport pupils to larger, more centralized schools.

Whatever its shortcomings may have been, the one-room school served a vital function in the evolution of Missouri's public education system and in the overall social and economic development of the state.


David Burton is author of the book, "A History of Rural Schools in Greene County, Mo" and "Directory of Historic and One-Room Schools in Missouri." His books are available for purchase at the University of Missouri Extension Center in Greene County or via