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Students Flourish in Gold Creek's One-Room School

Gold Creek, Mont., has no stores, gas stations or bars, and its one church is closed. But it is rich in grazing land, and it still has a one-room school.

It's a tiny community in Powell County, on the western slope of the continental divide, once famous as the first place gold was discovered in Montana 150 years ago. And near here, in 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its east-to-west connection.

But, like much of the state, Powell County has seen economic boom and bust. The mining and cattle ranching that once made it prosperous no longer sustain its people.

Today Gold Creek is one of several small communities in the county that's struggling to hold itself together. Jobs are scarce and young people are leaving the county to find work.

At Gold Creek School last spring, teacher Kim Tozzi had six students, in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Tozzi had come to Gold Creek from large urban and suburban schools in Las Vegas, Kansas City and Salt Lake City, where she taught upwards of 20 students at a time.

The first few weeks were rough; she said she was "terrified." She'd had no training and no experience in a multi-grade classroom. Now, three years later, she's learned new teaching techniques and is able to give individualized lessons to each student in all their subjects, every day.

She's pleased with their performance. Rural students in Montana typically do well on standardized tests, better than their urban counterparts.

County school superintendent Jules Waber is proud of their achievements, too, but worries that they'll have to leave the county for work when they're older. He's a strong believer in giving kids access to high technology in hopes that they will use these tools to create a new economic model for Powell County.

The state of Montana gives strong support to its small schools. There are roughly 400 one-room schools still functioning in the United States, one-quarter of them in Montana.

Next month, Neenah Ellis will visit the last one-room school in Hawaii -- in the native Hawaiian village of Ke'anae, on the north coast of Maui.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neenah Ellis