SHERIDAN, Wyo. - Five miles west of tiny Parkman, population 137, an unpaved road leads to one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the United States.
Nestled in northern Sheridan County, three-quarters of a mile south of the Montana border, Slack School boasts an enrollment of four eager elementary students in first through fourth grades. In a ranching community where self-sufficiency is a necessity, the school has held on as similar-size schools around the county are shuttered.
Established in what was once the town of Slack, named after Civil War veteran Col. John Slack, the small white school building has been in existence since 1894, according to teacher Pete Mohseni. It burned in the 1920s and has closed occasionally over the years due to low enrollment.
Mohseni is in his fourth year as Slack School teacher, making the 40-mile commute from Sheridan four days per week. A 14-year veteran Sheridan County School District 1 teacher, Mohseni said he volunteered for the position, eager for the chance to teach students in a small-school environment.
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"It's such a unique opportunity and I really wanted to experience teaching out here," he said.
"Education is the essence out here. I think there's a tremendous value in schools like this, maybe not economically but educationally."
A typical day at Slack School follows a schedule similar to larger elementary schools but allows for ample one-on-one instruction.
After breakfast at 7:45 a.m., reading and writing lessons take place until 10, when the students take a morning recess and check the mail with Mohseni.
Students tackle math before lunch, with social studies and science lessons in the afternoon. Mohseni is able not only to offer students individualized attention, but also to track their progress from year to year.
"Here you really know where the kids are with their learning," he said. "From day one, you can start where they left off and you know right away if they're getting a lesson. It's also neat seeing them progress from year to year - you really see the growth."
Art and music classes take place in the teachery, an even smaller adjacent building that was historically the teacher's home. It now serves as the school cafeteria and lunchroom as well.
While the school's design hearkens back to a simpler time, the Slack School is equipped with updated computer technology. The students use computers for research, reading and math activities, and high-speed Internet service allows Mohseni to administer standardized tests.
"The most challenging things to teach are P.E. (physical education) and music," acknowledged Mohseni. "In P.E., you'll have one student who's an athlete and another who's in kindergarten. I'm not too musically inclined, so I'm learning right there with them. They're learning to play notes on the recorder and harmonica now."
The four Slack School students all live on nearby ranches and are aware of how unique their school experience is, contributing to a strong sense of school pride.
"It's peaceful and not as noisy," said second-grader Sydney Butler.
Mohseni and his students take advantage of the school's remote location and wide-open spaces by taking learning outdoors as often as possible. Cross-country skiing is a popular physical education activity in winter, and students receive firsthand learning opportunities about weather and wildlife.
On Earth Day, students participated in a community cleanup, removing trash from a 10-mile stretch of Pass Creek Road.
"In a school like this, we're so attuned to the outside," Mohseni said. "When I first came out here, I wondered if the kids would get bored but they didn't. If there's a spat, they take care of it themselves."
"I give water to the dog and cat and clean the chicken cages before school," said third-grader Annie Kerns, who attends the school with her brother Finn, a first-grader.
Four generations of Kerns family members have attended the school.
Third-grader Wyatt Yeigh is a class clown who enjoys math and physical education and says given a choice, he'd choose to stay at the Slack School.
"I'd choose to go here instead of Tongue River Elementary, because it's different," Wyatt said.
Mohseni said the close relationships he's developed with the students and their families make him feel as much a family member as a teacher.
"It's like being an uncle or a father figure, but I get to send them home," Mohseni said. "I know the kids are getting a good education here, and I get to use all my creative powers."