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An education ideal to cozy up to

The Stevenson School is a one-room schoolhouse here in the Badlands along the North Dakota-Montana border. It has four students _ and that's assuming that Lexie Russell and Josh Rockeman, both 8, can canoe across the Little Missouri River to get to school.

When the river is too choked with ice to cross safely, Lexie and Josh stay on their ranches, and school attendance drops by half.

Public one-room schoolhouses like this one are disappearing, with fewer than 400 today, compared with 196,000 in 1917. But just as they're fading away, there is also a growing recognition that they offer important lessons for schools everywhere _ not just about teaching children, but also about raising them.

America has gone too far in creating huge schools with fine facilities _ but no sense of belonging. One-room schoolhouses are a reminder that what makes a great education is often those intangibles in which small schools excel: close bonds among students and with teachers, parental involvement and a cozy atmosphere that builds self-confidence and ensures that no one slips through the cracks.

"These are more like my kids than my students," said Jan Bergstrom, Stevenson's teacher. Bergstrom once taught at a Florida school with 300 students per grade, and she says the one-room schoolhouse is incomparably the best approach she has seen.

Of course, there are disadvantages. Stevenson kids have a team name, the Rattlesnakes, but it's impossible to compete in soccer when your entire student body, grades one to eight, consists of two boys and two girls.

After World War II, America rapidly consolidated schools. But education experts now agree that we went too far, so we're belatedly trying to recreate smaller, more intimate institutions. I heartily endorse the suggestion of one expert who told me that the simplest way to improve American education would be to blow up large schools (Students, don't take on this task yourselves).

I come to my enthusiasm for small schools because I attended one in Yamhill, Ore. True, my wife regards me as only marginally educated because I never really learned calculus, but it was wonderful for building self-esteem and encouraging us to try things. I have been a lifelong runner because Coach Turner begged me to join cross-country so he could have a full team.

There are other pluses: A friend boasts of graduating second in her high school class. She doesn't add that her class had only two students.

Some elements of one-room schoolhouses are being adopted around the country, including keeping students with the same teacher for two or more years, mixing students of different ages and encouraging older students to help younger ones _ there's no better way for a child to learn something than to teach it. Moreover, while public one-room schoolhouses are disappearing, variants like charter schools, home schools and tiny religious schools are booming.

At another one-room schoolhouse, Horse Creek, I met the three regular students: a second-grade boy, Kelby Indergard, and fifth-grade twins, Layton and Jordan ("I'm 14 minutes older") Oian. They wanted to know what large schools were like, and they were floored to hear of a high school graduating class so vast it had 43 students. Literally floored, in the case of Kelby, who dramatically clapped his forehead and keeled over.

"That's a lot of people," Layton said soberly. "I've never been around that many people."

Perhaps I'm drunk on nostalgia, but I believe we should push harder to recreate small schools. Surprisingly, a pioneer in that effort is far from the Great Plains: New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is breaking up some large high schools and trying to open 50 charter schools as part of an effort to create 200 small schools.

Good for Bloomberg, and for Los Angeles, which is thinking about following his lead.

"The smaller the school," says Andrew Gulliford, author of an admiring book about one-room schoolhouses, "the more parental involvement, the more the sense of belonging, the less vandalism, the better things work."

Nicholas D. Kristof is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times