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Photographers document Montana's disappearing one-room schools

Photographers document Montana's disappearing one-room schools

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At Salmon Prairie School, just north of Condon in the Swan Valley, Holl Hubbard teaches all three students, who happen to be siblings.

At Divide School, teacher Judy Boyle takes her handful of kids to the Big Hole River to do their own scientific research.

At Hawks Home School in Carter County, teacher Lynette Wolf schedules her day around the needs of the school's sole student.

At Pass Creek School, Dustyn Diggs, a 15-year-old, helps his younger schoolmate, Piper Davis, age 7.

"This is a kindergartner learning Christmas carols from an eighth-grade boy. And this is the kind of thing that happens all the time," said Neil Chaput de Saintonge.

He's discussing a photo he took for "Chasing Time: Last of the Active One-Room Schools in Montana."

He and fellow photographer Keith Graham set out to document interactions like these, the unique relationships that teachers and students develop, which would be unlikely to occur in urban school environments.

In 2013 and 2014, Chaput de Saintonge, founder of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, and Graham, a longtime photojournalism professor at the University of Montana, teamed up for the project.

They visited 25 of the state's 75 one-room schools at that time, taking 18 trips and logging thousands and thousands of miles. Notably, Montana lays claim to a high number of the country's one-room schools. By their estimate, there are fewer than 200 nationwide.

Both men shot color photographs, and Graham recorded video as well. He plans to edit the footage and stills into a documentary, running about 30 to 60 minutes, and create an accompanying website.

Thirty-five of their photos are now on display at the Missoula Art Museum, mostly on the third floor. Be sure to stop in the lobby, where the two placed their favorite images, and in the library where there are eight more pictures.

The two are editing the hundreds of photos down for a 200-page book with about 175 images. Initially, it will be self-published and should be ready by the August artists' reception. Graham is also looking for a publisher regionally and nationally. 


The two took most of the trips together, and the longtime friends had their share of road-trip adventures.

They visited Cooke City School in February and captured the two teachers - young women from Texas - in their new, much snowier environment.

"When we were there, it snowed a foot by 3 o'clock," Graham said.

They took Graham's four-wheel drive sedan instead of Chaput de Saintonge's SUV.

"On the way down there, we saw three trucks off the side of the road," Graham said.

"Why are we in a car?" they wondered.

At tiny schools like Cooke City, taking field trips becomes easier. Those students got to pay a visit to Yellowstone National Park the year before and do some skiing.

"They just have those opportunities," Graham said. "They're close. They have Yellowstone as their backyard."

Judy Boyle, the Divide teacher, also took her kids to Yellowstone, and had each student learn about a different subject. One studied up on wolves, for instance.

"They would do research before, they could talk to the other students about what they'd learned," Graham said.

In Kester, about 26 miles northeast of Jordan, there were 15 children in one classroom, ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade. It's the largest one-room school the two found during their project.

Teacher Pepper Werner joked that with seven boys and eight girls, one boy was going to have two dates to the Halloween dance.


The photographers would spend a full school day - some seven hours - documenting the routines of the teachers and students: A girl from Cleveland School in Blaine County who rides her horse to class when the weather's nice. A Hutterite student at North Harlem Colony learning German. Hubbard taking his sibling students on their daily morning walk.

Chaput de Saintonge said that after a short while, the kids didn't notice them anymore, and the two got up-close pictures of their work.

The two took a photojournalism tack with their photographs.

Chaput de Saintonge said he likes some sentimentality in his photography, and that shows in the pictures.

"I wanted photographs that showed a lot of love between the teachers and the students," he said.

Graham and Chaput de Saintonge were effusive about the quality of education most of the students receive.

"I heard this over and over again from the teachers, that was that if somebody was struggling in math, they could spend extra time," Graham said.

And smart kids got to move ahead at their own pace.

"If we had someone who was excelling, you just push them forward," he said.

Graham said Hubbard talked about the creativity and freedom he's given in a small environment.

"These teachers love what they do or they wouldn't be there," Graham said, noting that they're mostly underpaid but receive "tremendous support" from their communities.

"They want to keep them alive and well," Graham said.

The students have ample one-on-one time with teachers, and they literally grow up together.

It's usually the same students back each year, so the teacher already knows the class.

"There's not that learning curve every new school year," he said.

The teachers are multi-tasking, he said: One minute, they're helping an eighth-grader with math, the next they're helping a kindergartner learn the color of crayons.

And the younger students are exposed to what lessons lie ahead.

"You hear those lessons year after year, and you're just so much more prepared," he said.

Many of the teachers were on their first job out of college. Many leave after a few years.

Chaput de Saintonge guessed that the work can be lonely, even if they love it.

Some live in teacherages, small residences provided for them by the school.

Some, though, stay for the long term. At Hammond School in Carter County, they met Barb Lapke, who has taught there for 13 years. She's the sole resident of the town.


The idea for the project goes back a quarter-century, when Chaput de Saintonge and his wife Jeanne moved to Montana and founded their photography school.

"I love exploring where I live, and I was driving the state and I started noticing little tiny schools with swings that looked new and so forth, and it got me really fascinated," Chaput de Saintonge said.

Running his own school consumed his time, though. In 2007, he and writer Brooke Hewes produced an article for Montana Quarterly on the topic, and discussed a book project, but it was shelved after she moved out of state.

Graham suggested they team up, and after he was granted a sabbatical, they tackled the project.

To prepare, Graham did extensive research, including interviews with Claudette Morton, Ph.d., of the Montana Small Schools Alliance. He called teachers, superintendents and district clerks to plot their journeys.

The name "one-room schoolhouse" is a bit of a misnomer: the real criteria is whether the school had only one teacher. (Graham said at least two were limited to only one room.)

Often, a town's population dwindled after the school was built, leaving them with fewer students and extra space. And many were concentrated in the eastern half of the state.

"Eastern Montana is ranch country, so what's happened is a lot of the schools there would have 20, 30, 40, 50 kids, but as ranches get bigger and there aren't as many kids around anymore, those schools keep disappearing," Chaput de Saintonge said.

Many parents were grateful that they didn't have to drive their children to town, which could add up to hours of time round-trip. For high school, though, they'll head to a larger school with more kids, and opportunities for team sports and specialized extra-curricular activities.

"By the time they reach ninth grade, it's good for them to socialize with kids their age," Graham said.

The photographers hope that they gave a fair representation by visiting about a third of the schools, Graham said.

"I just tried to go to as many as I could," Graham said. "I wish I could've gone to all 75."

There's a reason, too, that they titled the project, "Chasing Time."

Many of the teachers they photographed have since left.

And some of the schools will likely become inactive, depending on the number of students and whether the district chooses to keep it open.

According to Graham's figures, there were 212,000 one-room schoolhouses across the country in 1913. By 1950, it dropped to 60,000. A decade later, it was 20,000. By 1999, it dwindled 476.

"How many of these will continue to stay active?" Graham said.

If more young parents don't move into the communities, will the schools close? he wondered.

"Will it not be worth it to have one or two kids in each classroom?" he said.

Those are "tough decisions" ahead for the districts and the communities, which often described the schools as a "blessing."

Hubbard, the Salmon Prairie teacher, said his kids liked school so much they wanted to come even if they were sick.

He told Graham, "You let them have fun, they'll want to learn."

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