(The following is my article for the McKenzie County Farmer, Vol. 109, Issue 9, Wednesday, Sept. 14. 2016, "Class Is In Session at Horse Creek School")
Seated at a low table by a window wetted with raindrops, Kim Kranz slowly paged through “The Commotion in the Ocean” as her two first-graders followed along.
Across the room, fourth-graders Iris Waltner and Jori Horsburgh worked quietly at their desks while seventh-grader Shane Waltner wrote in a workbook. Fifth-grader Lily Waltner sat her desk, working away as well.
Everyone looked up when first-grader Hitch Horsburgh asked his teacher about dolphins, who said she petted the watery mammals on a trip to Mexico. The class, working independently until now, was briefly captivated by their teacher’s anecdote before slipping into their assignments again.
Reading lessons led into math and language before recess Friday morning, Sept. 9, when the six students hit the playground and climbed around their fort in the wooded ditch near State Highway 68. This concluded the morning at Horse Creek School, McKenzie County’s last operating rural school.
Kranz beganteaching Aug. 22 at the charming K-8 school nestled along the western edge of North Dakota. After years in public schools with large classes, she knew since raising the flag for the pledge of allegiance on day one that Horse Creek is a special place.
“As I stood there with the meadowlarks twerping and the sun shining off the buttes, I felt I was in an alternate universe,” she said with a small laugh, standing in the center of her tidy classroom lined with books on the walls and a pet snail near the window.
“This is not for the faint of heart,” she added.
Rural schools are a shadow of their former selves in North Dakota, where over 4,700 once taught the state’s children. Four schools classified as rural by the state department of public instruction teach children today.
Along with the Naughton School near Baldwin, the Sweet Briar School near Judson and the Manning School near Bismarck, the Horse Creek School is one of the outmost of the outliers of the state’s rural schools, once numerous enough for one stand every 15 square miles in North Dakota.
Students arrived at 8:50 a.m. Friday in their school bus, a Chevrolet Suburban driven by Joanna Horsburgh, whose son and daughter attend the school.
Her 35-mile morning route picks up all the students who are siblings from two families.
“(The Waltners) drive about eight miles to meet me,” Horsburgh added.
“That is an interesting dynamic when you think about teaching,” Kranz said. “In a regular school environment, they generally work to not have so many siblings in one group. It’s not really possible in this situation.”
During morning lessons, Shane will step in to help the first-graders with math while Kranz works with Lily on language before meeting Iris and Jori together for their lesson.
The girls are good friends. They spent the morning helping each other with schoolwork, chasing each other across the playground at recess and when Jori dropped a case of erasers, Iris turned around and helped her gather them into place.
That kind of wholesomeness and helpfulness is a key ingredient and outcome at Horse Creek School, Kranz said.
“They understand we’re accountable in front of one another,” she said, adding the children are “incredibly independent at a young age, which is interesting.”
Older students learn compassion for younger students learning the ropes while the little ones “are little recorders,” Kranz said, listening to everything.
“I think there’s some value in that older kid-younger kid interaction,” she said, educationally and socially.
Kranz came to the school after work as a Basin Electric Power Cooperative education project coordinator. She gave a safety presentation last year at the school, was told there would be an opening at the school but put it out of her mind before taking the position and embracing its rural environment.
Coming in to teach at Horse Creek, Kranz remembered her mother romanticizing her rural school days in eastern North Dakota, a partial influence in Kranz’s path to teaching.
“I’ve just always had a romantic view of what teaching in a rural school would be like,” she said.
Her students said they enjoy the isolation and smallness of their class.
Jori said she likes there aren’t as many kids as her previous school in Sidney. Iris likes building their fort in the ditch and sledding in wintertime, she said.
Shane, the oldest student, has had home schooling and public school experience, and said he enjoys the Horse Creek School maybe most of all.
“It’s the best school I think I’ll ever go to,” he said. Shane is also editor of the student paper, the Horse Creek Herald, which covers such topics as class introductions and the fort below the school.
Carol Kieson, McKenzie County’s superintendent of schools, said the decline of the rural population has decreased the number of applicants willing to work and availably live at Horse Creek School, but students are still there, even after the state’s interest in dissolving its rural schools.
“What I told the state board at that time was there’s a reason these outliers are there. If you had a first-grader would you (send them 55 miles away to town)?” Kieson said. “People need to be aware.”
Horse Creek is no different, serving the families who need it and students who love it.
And it won’t go away likely anytime soon.
“I don’t see it happening in the near future because historically there’s never been a huge amount of students there,” Kieson said.
Students like the Waltners and Horsburghs, who take away more than math and reading.
“It’s unique and we have fun,” Iris said.
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