How did Vermont end up with so many small, one-room schools? And why don’t we use them anymore?
To answer a listener question about the school closures of yore, VPR’s people-powered journalism project Brave Little State goes back in time.
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There’s a little red schoolhouse right in the heart of Vermont, on the Moretown Common Road in Washington County.
It has a sloping roof, big windows, and a small bell tower on top. It is the iconic image of a rural American one-room schoolhouse. It’s also one of Chelsea Smiley’s favorite schoolhouses.
“That was part of our daily walk when we lived in Moretown,” she says.
Chelsea has noticed old one-room schoolhouses, like this one in Moretown, all over the place. You’ve probably seen them, too. These days some of them have been converted into homes; some of them are community centers and others are in states of disrepair.
Chelsea has always thought they were beautiful, almost a part of the landscape.
“And I hadn’t really thought about them too much until we as a community were voting on consolidating,” she says.
You might tense up when you hear that word: consolidating. It’s something that’s been discussed in many Vermont towns over the past few years. Many of those discussions have been fraught.
Chelsea now lives in the town of Monkton (not to be confused with Moretown), which is in the thick of a consolidation debate. The local school district might be closing three of its five elementary schools next year.
But all over the state, Chelsea saw those old one-room schoolhouses. And none of them appeared to be serving its original purpose. (There is still a one-room schoolhouse in operation in Elmore, but it only goes through third grade.) And Chelsea realized that maybe what her town is grappling with isn’t new.
“We’ve gone through this before,” she says.
That’s why she put her question to Brave Little State: “Then-vs.-now school consolidation: Old school houses pepper the landscape. What is our school closing history?”
We put Chelsea’s question in a public voting round, where our audience makes the final decision about what we cover, and it won decisively.
I grew up in Moretown. And in the beautiful kind of Vermont coincidence that I’ve almost stopped being surprised by, the little red schoolhouse our question-asker Chelsea was talking about? It happens to be the one-room schoolhouse that I would have gone to — if I’d been born a few generations earlier.
If I had gone there, I would have walked a half mile down a dirt road and sat at a wooden desk. My classmates would have been kids of all ages. One teacher, probably a woman, would have taught us our lessons on a blackboard.
"As I remember, you went in, there was what we called the cloakroom — on either side of the main entrance there was a cloakroom for the boys and for the girls,” recalls Denise Gabaree, who attended the school. “And it was one big open room with big windows. Which, I — I liked that.”
Today, Denise is the president of the Moretown Historical Society.
“There were two kids in first and second grade when I was there, myself and Bobby Thompson, which worked out very well because the swingset had two swings,” she remembers.
Denise says the school building was painted white at the time, not red. She recalls there were fewer than 20 kids in the school, in grades 1 through 8. There was one teacher, Mrs. Howes:
“She lived between us and the school. They had a farm, so we would go down there and play with the farm animals and help them around the farm. So I knew her more as a person than I remember her as a teacher.”
This is more or less what school was like for most kids in Vermont for generations. Schools were small and deeply rooted in the community by nature: Before cars and buses, kids had to be able to walk to them. It was typical for each town to have a handful of different schools.
In the 1870s, Moretown, which is about 40 square miles, had 14 districts. Around that time, there were well over 2,500 schools in Vermont.
Like any history lesson, my answer to Chelsea’s question can’t encompass everything. And I’m going to have a little help, from William J. Mathis — or, less formally, Bill.
Bill is a senior advisor to the National Education Policy Center, and he just served a decade on the Vermont State Board of Education. He’s also written a history of education in the state.
He says this story begins all the way back in 1777, with the first Vermont State Constitution. It established that all towns in the state should have a school. Bill says the reason for this is tied to the reason we have schools at all.
“The whole idea of education was to build a democratic society,” he says.
And he says Vermont was the first state to adopt a general provision (Section 68 in the state consitution) for the education of children — as in universally, for everybody.
“That’s pretty fine stuff!” he exclaims.
But it’s also a reason why things have been complicated. The entire story of education in Vermont has been marked by tensions between communities, the state, population changes, finances, equity, quality, and efficiency.
“It’s like a hundred different big rubber bands which are all pulling in different directions and humming right along as they contest with each another,” Bill says.
So there’s a long lineage of these kinds of debates in Vermont’s history. But in the spirit of the topic, let’s think about this story as a school play. At this point, we’d like to present, to our fine listeners and readers: Vermont’s history of school consolidation, in three acts.
Bill told me that for a long time, things stayed relatively simple: People built schoolhouses where they needed them and the budget was whatever they paid the teacher.
That changed in the late 1800s.
In 1890, the Vermont Legislature established a property tax to streamline education funding in towns around the state — and then, trying to streamline the new tax system, they did something else. They passed legislation that consolidated over 2,000 districts into around 250.
Previously, there had been a district for pretty much every single school, which is why there were so many. This legislation consolidated them into town districts.
And it was a trade-off. Then-governor Levi Fuller said in his inaugural address that year that in many places, a system like this would improve education, but that in some smaller districts the reform would cause “considerable hardship.”
A lot of Vermonters didn’t take kindly to Monpelier telling them what to do, especially when that was letting go of hyper-local control of schools — which is why they gave this act a name only Vermonters in the 1890s could bestow: the Vicious Act of 1892. (It’s not what the lawmakers called it, but it’s how it is known to history.)
Something about all this might seem a little familiar. Bill Mathis says those tensions I mentioned before have been ebbing and flowing through the history of Vermont.
“Centralization and consolidation have always been hot-button issues,” he says.
By 1900, there were just over 1,500 one-room schools in Vermont. Twenty years later, there were about 1,000. And consolidation continued throughout the 20th century, when lots of other things were happening: war, industrialization and national movements to reform education, to name just a few.
An oral history project done around 40 years ago documented the transition from those small schoolhouses to larger institutions. Middlebury College professor Margaret Nelson and a group of volunteers interviewed more than 30 women in Addison County, all of whom had been schoolteachers. One interviewer, Eleanor Samson, spoke with a Mrs. Cora Spalding Rock, who taught in the early half of the 1900s.
In the recording, Cora says that not long before she began, it wasn't totally out of the ordinary for teachers to have no more than an eighth-grade education themselves, plus a few summer courses. Cora started right after high school, teaching in a one-room school in Monkton.
“Now, back in the rural school, my first school, [it] was very interesting,” she says.
Cora lived with a local family, which teachers often did. She paid them $5 a week to stay — and she happened to live with five of her students.
Did she feel like she had to help them at night with their schoolwork?
“No, no ... I played and mixed right in with them,” Cora says. “I was one of the family.”
The school was a half mile from the house where they all lived. “And in the wintertime, when the snow was deep, one of the boys would go down from a rural school and build the fire,” she recalls.
“I remember one winter with deep snow, they had an old horse. He'd go down on the horse, and the horse would come back home. I'd go drive on the horse, and the horse would go back home — [and then] each one of the children would take turns riding down to the schoolhouse on the horse,” she says, laughing.
This was a reality of Vermont’s small schools for a long time. Especially in the early days, buildings sometimes fell into a state of neglect. Teachers weren’t highly trained and they weren’t paid much. But they were also well-regarded members of the community.
One of the findings of the oral history project was that there were trade-offs between the one-room schools and the central schools: Teachers felt a loss of a sense of mission and freedom, but the gain of institutional support and a sense of professionalism.
The whole complicated transition is summed up pretty well in this bit of narration from a radio documentary series produced by the Vermont Historical Society in the 1980s:
“Many former students and teachers agree that the attributes of the one-room school — close, family-like relationships, multi-age learning situations, and a strong sense of community spirit often offset the drawbacks of cold drafty buildings, inadequate teaching materials, substandard outhouse facilities and a lack of professional support. And whatever gains are credited to school consolidation, in many communities, the loss of the one-room school has removed a social center not easily replaced.”
By the 1950s, the number of one-room schools was in the 500s — which is still kind of a lot, if you think about it. Many high schools were consolidating into union high schools at this time. But still, some of those small, one-room elementary schools persisted — like that schoolhouse in Moretown.
But the reason I didn’t go there was because in the 1960s, the schools in Moretown were consolidated and all the small one-room schools closed.
We return now to Denise Gabaree, of the Monkton Historical Society. She lived through this transition.
From third grade on, Denise went to the same central elementary school that I went to more than 40 years later. Instead of walking to school, she rode the bus. And instead of one classmate her age, she had several. There were multiple classrooms, a gym, a library. And each classroom had only one or two grades in it.
“The first year especially, we were in with kids that we didn’t know because they were coming from different parts of the town, from different schools,” she says. “So, it took some adjusting.”
One day when I was about 8 (the same age Denise was when she changed schools) my teacher shepherded my class onto the school bus and we drove around town, stopping at each one of the old schoolhouses so every kid could see where they would have gone to school. We got to go inside that red one on Moretown common — I remember seeing axe marks on the wood floor, next to where the wood stove used to be.
“It doesn't look that much different than it did when it was a school,” Denise says. “So it’s kind of neat to drive by there. “There are many schools that have gone into ruin or been torn down or, you know, not used. And it’s just kind of nice to see it there on the corner and remember, ‘Oh yeah, I went to school there.’”
Now, we said we’d go through this history in three acts. At this point we've finished Act 1, and had a little oral history interlude — but there are two acts left to go.
You’ve probably noticed by now that money is a big factor in the fate of Vermont schools.
Something worth mentioning is a decision made in the 1990s: In 1997, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 60. It came about because of a Vermont State Supreme Court decision that said the way education was funded was unconstitutional because it wasn't equitable statewide.
Act 60 was intended to even out educational funding so the quality of schools wasn’t dependent on how wealthy a given district was. To do this, it established a statewide education tax and a formula to distribute the money. But some people didn’t like the idea of funding schools in areas they didn’t live in.
“That’s how I got a punctured tire one night,” says our education expert Bill Mathis. (He played a prominent role in the case.)
Act 60 was revised by more legislation (Act 68) a few years later. And at this point, all the one room schools were closed, save a few outliers.
But we’ve got to move on now, to the third and final act — and the one which got our question-asker Chelsea started on this topic in the first place.
The 20th century brought a lot of changes. But by the time I was an elementary school student in the early 2000s, some things still looked relatively similar to how they did 100 years earlier: Most towns had an elementary school, and each school had a school board.
Education funding was still dependent on property taxes, though by this point there was a complicated statewide formula based on how many students there are (because of Act 60).
But the education system was facing more problems: One of the big ones was fewer students, a.k.a. “declining enrollment.” Enter Act 46, which was passed in 2015 and incentivized consolidation of school governance.
As for Bill Mathis? Of the 10 members of the Vermont state board of education, he was the only one to oppose Act 46. (“I’m afraid that's true,” he says.)
When I asked him to tell me about the decision, he laughed. It hadn’t been easy to be the outlier — but he stands by it.
“It’s real clear to me [that] if we were giving up on our local schools, then we’re giving up a whole lot of this democracy thing,” he says. “We lose that, we lose the ballgame.”
Proponents of Act 46 said consolidation of school governance would make for more efficient, sustainable and equitable public schools — which is exactly what people in Vermont, from parents to governors, have been trying to achieve all along.
But it hasn’t been straightforward. Right now, the state is again rethinking how it funds education — it seems that the way Act 60 played out has not been quite as equitable as some people had hoped.
And at Town Meeting just this week, voters in Addison County agreed to let one town basically secede from a district that had recently merged. That town is Ripton — it wants to strike out on its own to preserve its elementary school. Meanwhile, voters in Windham County decided to stay merged.
So much about how we educate our kids feels really fluid right now — which is why “consolidation” is top of mind for people like our question-asker Chelsea. And she doesn’t even have kids!
Something Denise Gabaree said about her one-room school closing in the 1960s sounds very similar to conversations happening in small towns right now:
"I can remember if something needed to be done at the one-room school, parents would come down and do it," she says. "And the consolidated schools, [parents are] from different towns. So there's still a community, but it's not a closely knit, I don't think."
And for all that’s different now — the school buildings, the buses, the technology, the teaching style — it seems as though some things haven’t changed much at all.
Bill Mathis says it has never just been about oversight, or funding, or efficiency: “Community, people, that’s the key to the whole thing.”
I brought all this back to our question-asker Chelsea Smiley.
“It kind of blows my mind,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be such a close parallel."
In some ways, history has repeated itself — but at least as far as Chelsea is concerned, it doesn’t have to:
“I don’t think that this story is over. I think a lot of passionate and thoughtful people are part of the conversation. And I think if we can listen to each other — I think that’s what I hope will maybe make this less ‘vicious’ this time.”
It’s hard to say what the future holds; data from the Vermont Agency of Education shows that public school enrollment is still steadily dropping — it went down 5% last fall.
But if you look around any town, you’ll see those old one-room schoolhouses. They’re still here.
As for the little red schoolhouse in Moretown, it’s a home now. A woman named Deborah lives there. And there’s still a bell in the little tower on the roof, though it doesn't ring any more — too many wasps were getting in the slats so Deborah stopped it up.
But she told me that she didn’t take it down, in case someone in the future wants to ring it. And the axe marks are still on the floor.
Clarification 12:28 p.m. 3/8/21 This post has been updated to reflect the fact that there is a one-room schoolhouse in operation in the town of Elmore; it goes through the third grade.
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Thanks to Chelsea Smiley for the great question, and to the Vermont Folklife Center, Margaret Nelson, the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kathi Orr, Howard Weiss-Tisman and Pete Hirschfeld.
This episode was edited by Lynne McCrea and Angela Evancie, with engineering support from Peter Engisch. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons, other music by Blue Dot Sessions and The Hart Sisters.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from VPR sustaining members. If you’re a fan of the show, you can make a gift at bravelittlestate.org/donate. We really can’t do this work without you.