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One-room education

Lessons from the past resonate in the present


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The one-room schoolhouse is back! That’s the big news from Lancaster County in southeast Pennsylvania. You can get the heartwarming details from Josh Schumacher’s account earlier this month on The World and Everything in It. Schumacher does a great job of re-creating the authenticity and charm that have prompted some educators to call this one of the most profound forces for good in the history of American education.

Specifically, Schumacher interviews two longtime public school teachers—Rozanna and Steven Leever—who had cut their eyeteeth as teachers in Qatar and Dubai. Returning to the United States “with some great ideas, the Leevers faced resistance in the public school contexts where they introduced them. That’s when the schoolhouse came up for sale.”

Go to wng.org to listen to or read more of the fascinating details of that remarkable venture. I report the link here because I’ve got my own personal experience with “one-room education.”

I was a fourth grader in 1950—facing my fifth new school in just five years. For me, it was still an adventure. For my parents, it was a growing crisis. I ended up that fall in the South Cono School—a tiny one-roomer. There were 18 students, scattered across grades K-7. One teacher, Barbara Lang, faced her first year on the job.

“All churches can afford something like what we’re doing here.”

I’ll let my older sister, Julie Lutz, tell you a bit about South Cono’s facilities: “We took turns bringing a bucket of water from a well at a farm down the road each day. The common dipper took care of our drinks, and a basin nearby took care of our handwashing. There was a coal stove and there were two outhouses. There was a Victrola for our music education.”

I still remember my parents telling their skeptical friends some of the benefits. “When all grade levels are in one room,” Dad would point out, “the third graders listen in on the sixth graders, getting a head start on their material. And the laggards [I always liked that word!] had a chance to catch up.”

Or they would point to the graduates this little school had in its record book. Not just a doctor, but the chief of surgeons at the hospital just 26 miles down the road. The county’s first ever full-time, fully trained veterinarian. Forry Zimpfer recently earned his Ph.D. at Iowa State.

But the really crucial memory, shaping the future in a manner none of us could have imagined, came again from our sister Julie: “I mentioned to Dad that in science class I had said to our teacher, ‘But that isn’t what the Bible says.’ And that our teacher had answered, ‘But that’s what the book says.’ Dad’s immediate response was: ‘We need to have a Christian school.’” We children wondered what a Christian school was. But by the following September we were at our desks in just such a school.

By that same September, that aging one-room school had closed its doors, merging with the much larger public school nearby. A few years later, the historic little structure left behind was purchased by the new Christian school and relocated to its campus several hundred yards away. That one-room school, now well over 100 years old, serves largely as a museum.

Both schools might understandably be seen as in recovery mode. Of the school in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Leever says: “It’s a laboratory school. So that means I’m still learning as well. … There will be things that I say, ‘Nope, not doing that again.’ We have to be willing to know that as an educator.”

And Wallace Anderson, who has ultimate responsibility for the use of the one-roomer in Iowa where I spent fourth grade, says: “Not all communities can afford private Christian schools. But all churches can afford something like what we’re doing here.”

In the meantime, one lesson should be accepted as completed wisdom. Don’t underestimate the durability of these 100-year-old one-room schoolhouses.


Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.

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