"Since the schools are supported in part by local taxation, their condition may be taken as a index to the prosperity, liberality and public spirit of the people: hence, citizens of Clark County point with pride to the white school houses that dot the green sward of the play-grounds, at short intervals along every highway. In many districts the first school house was built of logs, as it could be quickly and cheaply constructed. But few of these remain, and the neatly painted frame buildings and the substantial brick structures put to shame many older communities in less progressive lands."
These words by 1890 Clark County School Superintendent, Geo E Crothers, reflect the progressiveness of the public school system in Wisconsin's early days. In the early 1840's Wisconsin Territorial Legislature passed laws for the formation of school districts, school tax levies, and commissioners to oversee teachers' exams and school inspections; however, it was the communities that ultimately provided for the children's education. Schools were locally controlled and often privately funded, due to low public support. The communities were often responsible for the hiring of teachers and the construction of school facilities. Classes often began in log buildings, which were easy to erect, until a proper school building could be constructed.
In 1848, Article X of the Wisconsin Constitution was created and Wisconsin became a forerunner in providing free education. Article X provided for free public schools for all children ages 4 to 18, with local taxes for school support. It wasn't until 1865 that free education was available throughout the United States.
The goals of early schools included: building skills for work and introducing good life skills. Life skills included: good health, moral conduct, and citizenship. In the 1930's, 6,500 one room schools existed in the state of Wisconsin.
Teachers in the one room schools worked for meager pay and changed schools often. They were responsible for all eight grades and gave 20 class sessions per day. The curriculum was often based on the "3 R's"-reading, writing, and arithmetic, although students also received lessons in spelling, penmanship, grammar, history, and geography.
Students worked at their desks with either slates or paper with ink and pen. They were given three recesses, one in the morning, the evening, and at lunch time. Students were also given chores, such as: fetching drinking water, carrying the stove wood, or erasing the blackboard.
The schools had no running water. Drinking water needed to be pumped from the well outside. Students also needed to ask permission to use the outhouse and had to wash their hands in a basin at the back of the school room.
Lessons were given according to ability and not age. Students were permitted to "learn ahead" or listen in on classes given to more advanced students. When classes were missed, students were also allowed to "catch up" or listen to lessons already given.
One room schools were often used for other community events. Facilities were often used for picnic, town meetings, receptions, and other local events.
As farms became larger and population grew smaller, one room schools began to decrease in number. In 1960, there were just 1,300 one room schools left in Wisconsin.
On the early 1960's, the state statutes called for the merging of all local school districts into high school districts. Students from rural schools began being bussed to larger schools. By the 1970's, all o the one room schools were gone.
Of the 28 rural schools investigated for this story, just 14 of the buildings still remain. Many of the facilities are now used as private homes, while others are used as community halls, storage facilities, and historical museums.
Several of the schools have been replaced by new homes, using the original well that once provided drinking water for students.
However, at every site there remains at least one sign of the school's location. In many cases, it is just an empty lot with a small grove of pine trees and broken pieces of foundation that mark the existence of days gone by.
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