Challenges of rural education in Wyoming: balancing large land and small schools

The idea of one-room schoolhouses brings to mind images of dirt floors, dusty chalkboards, and a setting reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie. Despite this traditional portrayal, Wyoming, the least populated state in America, still boasts 18 schools with three rooms or fewer.

The origins of small schoolhouses and rural education in the Cowboy State are deeply intertwined with Wyoming’s constitution. The constitution guarantees the right to education and delineates the state’s funding framework. Every student in the state is entitled by law to equal access to educational resources, regardless of their geographic location.

Barbara Hickman, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming’s College of Education, emphasized the uniqueness of Wyoming’s educational structure. “Not every state’s constitution addresses education,” Hickman pointed out. “The inclusion of a mandate in Wyoming’s constitution for adequate funding of our public education system is significant.”

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The block grant funding system in place establishes funding criteria for schools across Wyoming. Counties that generate adequate revenue to independently finance their schools are categorized as “recapture” counties and redistribute surplus funds back to the state.

Most of the state’s counties fall under the “entitlement” category, relying on state funding and the surplus funds of other counties to meet their educational expenditures. The funding levels are adjusted to cater to the needs of the state’s smallest school districts.

“The funding model aims to be fair and adequate across the state. Smaller districts receive a significantly higher amount per student,” noted Boyd Brown, the incoming executive director of the Wyoming Association of School Administrators.

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These dynamics are exemplified in schools like Valley Elementary in Park County, a school built in 1918. Located along South Fork River with the majestic Absaroka mountains as a backdrop, the school accommodates eight students spanning kindergarten through fifth grade. Michelle Dean has been a teacher at Valley Elementary for eight years.

Teachers at such schools face unique challenges, including managing curricula across multiple grades and accommodating diverse learning levels. Apart from enduring harsh winters and securing against grizzly bears, teachers at such schools must cater to students’ individual needs.

In a recent project at Valley Elementary, students delved into vermicomposting, conducting experiments to answer questions like, “Can worms jump?” and “Do worms like music?” Michelle Dean wanted to create a dynamic learning environment, transcending grade boundaries within the classroom to foster collaborative learning.

Maintaining a multi-curricular approach, though demanding, pays off in providing personalized education to students, enabling peer mentoring across different grade levels.

Students of Slack Elementary in Sheridan County, Wyoming interacting with their class dog

“By encouraging students to explore their interests and offering flexibility in learning, students receive specialized attention and support,” Dean emphasized. “Older students mentor younger ones, fostering a symbiotic learning environment.”

Similarly, schools like Slack Elementary in Sheridan County, established in 1937 at the foot of the Big Horn mountains, serve as community hubs in remote areas. Drawing students from ranching families, these schools host events like Slack’s ice cream social and Valley’s annual Christmas play, providing communal gathering points.

“What truly matters is the community involvement in our school events, showcasing a collective effort to support the school and its students,” echoed Principal Ryan Fuhrman.

Students at Valley Elementary School in Park County, Wyoming bidding farewell to retiring Principal Larry Gerber

Karin Unruh, an educator at Bondurant Elementary in Sublette County for over a decade, emphasized the close-knit nature of rural schools and their commitment to providing excellent education.

Unruh dispelled misconceptions about the quality of education in rural settings, affirming that small schools offer ample resources, individualized attention, and robust learning experiences for students.

As students in Wyoming’s small schools mature and begin traveling independently, they embark on long bus rides to the nearest town. For Unruh, investing in rural education is essential for sustaining local communities and fostering their growth.

Recess at Crowheart Elementary School on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Fremont County, Wyoming

“Schools are integral to community vitality, attracting and retaining families. They play a pivotal role in sustaining community engagement,” affirmed Unruh.

While operating small schoolhouses may incur higher costs, Larry Gerber, principal of Valley School, emphasized the paramount importance of meeting students’ needs.

“For a five-year-old, spending hours on a school bus is impractical. Providing shorter commuting times is crucial for younger students,” Gerber pointed out. “Investing in the education of a few students may seem costly, but the impact on each child’s life is invaluable.”

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