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One-room schools: Iowa led the way

By Staff | Oct 5, 2016

Humanities Iowa and the Estherville Public Library presented Iowa Country Schools:?Landmarks of Learning Monday night.

Bill Sherman, a speaker from?Humanities Iowa, is editor of a book with the same title, published in 1998, and available on Amazon.

Sherman has spent more than 35 years as a publications/public relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association.

Now retired, he conducts research, writes and speaks about country schools, and is also involved in country school preservation.

Sherman has said, “While one-room schools are no longer the dominant form of educational delivery in this day and age.”

Sherman says they were for over a 100-year-span in history.

“In fact, we can say that the one-room school was really the backbone of the educational delivery system in Iowa from the 1840s, when Iowa became a state, through the 1940s,” he said.

Helen Phelan Augustine, 87, of Emmetsburg also wrote a book on one-room school houses, They Opened the Door and Let my Future In, published in 2006. Augustine, a former scholar of a rural Palo Alto County one-room schoolhouse, wrote the book based on interviews with country school teachers.

“All but two of those I interviewed have died,”?Augustine said.

There are still nearly 60 one-room schoolhouses, which enroll more than 1,000 students, operated in Iowa today. Most of these are private schools operated by Amish and Mennonite groups, with seven one-room schools operated by Wapsie Valley and Jesup for Amish children.

Sherman had numerous items on display, including a map of Emmet County with the locations of the one-room schoolhouses marked. At one time, Sherman said, there were 58 one-room schoolhouses in Emmet County.

One-room schools sprang up in rural areas all over the state, Sherman said. Parents wanted schoolhouses close to their homes so students could get to school and back easily. Students often walked. Sometimes they rode a horse or came in a buggy. Teachers lived with a nearby farm family and sometimes moved from house to house through the school year.

One-room schoolhouses became regulated in 1920. A checklist of standards, from the assurance that each schoolhouse had an outhouse for the students to use, to benchmarks of learning.

“The checklist primarily had to do with the condition of the building and the quality of the teacher,”?Sherman said.

A school scoring 80 of 100 points would receive a doorplate indicating it was a Standard School. This earned the school $10 per student in state aid to purchase supplies and/or improve the teacher’s salary in order to continue attracting qualified teachers.

Later, a rating of Superior School was available for schools earning 90 percent or more.

Sherman also said the regionalist artist Grant Wood, who was born in Anamosa, Iowa, taught in the one-room Rosedale school during the 1911-1912 school year before he enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute.

While his iconic painting of Iowa is “American Gothic,”?his painting called “Arbor Day,”?depicting a one-room schoolhouse has had a revival of interest in his work. It appears on the Iowa quarter, with the words, “Foundation in Education.”?

Sherman said Iowa’s foundation was in education. Settlers who moved in before Iowa was a state, and when it was a new state, placed a high value on the education of their children, a value that has remained constant over the years of changes in education.

Sherman said Iowa currently has a dual system of public and private one-room schoolhouses that isn’t seen in any other state in the country.