A California tale: The one-room schoolhouse

A one-room schoolhouse in Comptche, Mendocino County, which serves 14 students. (Photo: California Teachers Association)

The 112-year-old schoolhouse with the old-fashioned bell looks like it should be a historical museum. But it’s a working K-8 public school with only 10 students.

Washington School, about 20 miles east of Nevada City in the Sierra foothills, is one of a handful of one-room schools scattered scattered across rural California. The state Department of Education does not keep records on how many of these schools there are, said information officer Charlene Cheng, adding that the decision to keep them going is made at a local level rather than at the state.

“There’s great accountability between teachers and students and students don’t fall through the cracks like they might at a bigger school,” she said.

Washington School is part of the Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which has a total enrollment of about 100. According to a 2011 report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, about 40 percent of public school districts in the state are “small” (serving fewer than 1,000 students) and about 10 percent are “very small” (serving fewer than 100 students).

A century ago there were more than 200,000 one-room schoolhouses in the United States, a number that dwindled to 335 by 2006, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. “Only about a dozen now operate in California,” noted a 2010 article on the California Teachers Association’s web site.

Washington School. <i>(Photo: Twin Ridges Elementary School District)</i>

Washington School. (Photo: Twin Ridges Elementary School District)

With a population of less than 200, Washington is located on the banks of the Yuba River and is a favorite spot for camping and driving off-road vehicles. It has a hotel and a couple of campgrounds but no cell phone service or grocery store.

Rebecca Kozloski, a parent with two children at Washington School, said she loves the campus because of the individual attention her kids get. One of her children has special needs and was struggling at bigger schools. He is thriving at Washington.

“There’s great accountability between teachers and students and students don’t fall through the cracks like they might at a bigger school,” she said.

One teacher and aid work at the school, giving an enviable teacher-student ratio of 1-5. Kozloski likes that her children get to work with the same faculty members year after year.

She also appreciates the close relationship her family has with the other school families. “We all know each other very well,” she said.

“The biggest enrollment when I was there I think was about 21 kids.” — Barry Avers

There are similar close relationships at Comptche School, a 14-student K-3 campus, in Mendocino County. “I think I really get to know (the students) and understand their strengths and weaknesses,” said the teacher Kathy Jackson, who works at the school with two aids. “I can give a lot of help. I can see immediately who is not getting something.”

She also likes seeing the older children mix with the younger children. It’s fun to watch the third graders helping the kindergarteners or joining with the younger kids for a game of dress-up, Jackson said.

Teaching is also more interesting because she doesn’t just cover the same grade’s curriculum year after year.

Located about 17 miles southeast of Fort Bragg, Comptche has about 160 residents. Jackson said the community wanted to keep a school in town for the younger kids so they wouldn’t have to send them on a half-hour bus ride to the next closest public school.

Both Comptche and Washington schools are important parts of their community. At Washington School, many residents – not just relatives of the children – turn out for school plays and annual celebrations like the Halloween parade, Kozloski said.

Barry Avers, who attended the school in the 1960s and whose grandparents attended the school, said the campus is a major community meeting place. He enjoyed the close-knit feeling of the school too. “The biggest enrollment when I was there I think was about 21 kids,” he said. “The majority of it was from three different families.”

Educating students in this way comes at a cost, though. James Berardi, superintendent of Twin Ridges Elementary School District which includes Washington School, estimates it costs about $15,000 to educate each student as compared to $7,500 statewide.

The school narrowly avoided closure this year after community members rallied to keep it. Last year, the Twin Ridges Elementary School District Board voted to close the school to save an estimated $150,000-$200,000 of its $1.2-$1.4 million budget. But a few months later, the board reversed its decision after learning that the district might not save that much after all because Twin Ridges might have to pay money to another district that would take the Washington students.

Berardi said the district has been operating at a deficit for many years and spends 25 percent more than it takes in. The school is safe for now but that could change.

“I have empathy, I feel for the town,” he said. “But I have a budget to live within.”


Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: