What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How Wyoming manages to keep its rural schools open

The one-room schoolhouse may seem like a distant memory from U.S. history, but about 200 of them still exist today, including Wyoming’s tiny Valley Elementary School. It has only six students, but in Wyoming, education funding is redistributed so that students can have access to similar resources, no matter how small or remote their location. Mason Baum of Student Reporting Labs has the story.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Many small schools across the country have closed in recent years due to state funding issues and population shifts.

    But in rural Wyoming, one school with just six students has so far survived.

    From our Student Reporting Labs at Cody High School, senior Mason Baum reports.

  • Mason Baum:

    This is Valley Elementary School in the Absaroka Mountains of Northern Wyoming. This is an area so remote, students have to do weekly bear drills.

  • Michelle Dean:

    Bear, bear!

  • Mason Baum:

    Literally, these are drills to protect them from bears coming up to the school.

    Michelle Dean is the school's primary teacher.

  • Michelle Dean:

    There's abundant wildlife amongst us because we're so close to Yellowstone National Park.

  • Hallie Robinson:

    Like, at nighttime, we will have lions come down the front, and bears.

  • Moriah Dean:

    I'm scared of bears, mountain lions, and sometimes bugs.

  • Mason Baum:

    Valley Elementary is a K-5 school. It currently serves only six students, making it one of the country's smallest public schools.

  • Michelle Dean:

    This is an essential school. The school is part of the community. It's a historic landmark. This is where the community comes together, and it's part of our culture.

  • Mason Baum:

    All of the kids at Valley Elementary live on nearby ranches.

  • Brandon Robinson:

    But when we come home from school, the kids will help us with whatever chores we have here at the ranch or maybe a project that I'm working on.

  • Mason Baum:

    Brandon Robinson manages the Majo Ranch. His children, Blake and Hallie, attend Valley Elementary.

  • Brandon Robinson:

    We're too far from town to send them to town. We moved up here seven years ago because of the Valley School, and we'd have a really neat setting for our kids to go to school through the fifth grade.

  • Mason Baum:

    When Valley Elementary first opened 100 years ago, there were roughly 200,000 one-room-schoolhouses like it across the country. Now there are only about 200 remaining.

    Jillian Balow is the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction. She explains how the state funds small schools like valley.

  • Jillian Balow:

    Wyoming spends between $15,000 to $18,000 per student per year in K-12 education. Among the top in the nation and maybe unique to Wyoming is our funding model that recaptures money from our wealthy districts and redistributes those to school districts that we call entitlement districts.

  • Mason Baum:

    The news organization called Education Week recently graded all 50 states in two key categories of school finance, overall spending and equity. Wyoming received the best grade in the nation.

  • Jillian Balow:

    Well, we see states across the nation looking to us to replicate their own state funding model.

    No matter the zip code, no matter the size of the community, no matter where the student is from, or traveling to the school each day, and no matter what your socioeconomic status is, in Wyoming, we certainly, certainly believe and are committed to making sure that every student has access to a quality education.

  • Michelle Dean:

    The advantages of teaching a one-room classroom is seeing the multi-age model working. It's very amazing. It's actually quite magical.

    I have more flexibility here to meet the needs of my students and to give them a real-life learning experience outside the classroom, and just to bridge that community and the school together.

  • Mason Baum:

    What do you want to be when you grow up?

  • Grace Kleinman:

    I want to be a veterinarian.

  • Blake Robinson:

    When I grow up, I'm going to live in a cabin on the mountains and I want to work for a ranch.

  • Mason Baum:

    After graduating from elementary school, students will have to travel an hour or more for middle school and high school. The transition can be jarring.

    Thomas Lawler went to Valley. He is now a sophomore at Cody High School.

  • Thomas Lawler:

    I didn't have anyone coming from my school going into middle school, so I was just kind of alone.

    I made friends pretty quick, but getting thrown in with nothing is kind of scary. It was really overwhelming to having only me as a fifth grader and like five other kids to having over, like, 100 kids in my grade alone, and then walking through the halls and going to different classes and having different teachers. It was definitely a big change.

  • Mason Baum:

    How did Valley prepare you, or not prepare you, for the future?

  • Thomas Lawler:

    Valley, it was a big part of my life, and it kind of made me who I am, in a way, because it kind of forced me to be a better person because I couldn't stray off, and I had individual attention.

  • Mason Baum:

    Valley students prepare for middle school by taking field trips with other schools.

  • Michelle Dean:

    Well, we tour the middle school, and the middle school teachers are great. They reach out to me, and we talk about the strengths and needs of each of our fifth grade students that are getting ready to go.

  • Hallie Robinson:

    I don't want to go to middle school.

  • Mason Baum:

    Are you scared of it?

  • Hallie Robinson:

    No, I just like elementary a lot.

  • Mason Baum:

    A lot of small schools around the country face the threat of closure, but the Valley community is hopeful that Wyoming's commitment to its rural schools will last at least another generation, so they can focus on the more immediate threat: grizzly bears and mountain lions.

    For the "PBS NewsHour"'s Student Reporting Labs, I'm Mason Baum in Cody, Wyoming.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest