Little School on the Prairie

Americana, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on April 28, 2002

The hand-rung bell in the short bell tower at Trinity School has rung generations of children into class for more than a hundred years.

Youngsters still learn to read, write, add, and subtract under the same roof that has sheltered students since 1893. The day begins when one child raises the Stars and Stripes while leading the Pledge of Allegiance.

“It’s a reward for them to lead the pledge,’’ says Donna Fischer, the lone teacher. And, with just three students, that reward is frequent.

After the pledge, the one first-grader and two third-graders take turns ringing the bell, then race inside to begin a day of studies in the sort of school that educated America since before the nation was born. “They do fight over it (the bell), though,’’ Fischer says with a grin.

The school in Canyon Creek, Mont.—a ranching community of about 200 people—may be an anachronism in this age of consolidated school districts, but the students don’t mind it a bit.

The school’s small size means the teacher and her students are a close-knit family. At recess, Fischer plays kickball, hide-and-go-seek, or basketball right along with her students. After all, without her, the children wouldn’t have even-numbered teams. At lunch, she warms the children’s lunches if needed and then joins them at the large rectangular table in the gymnasium.

“We talk about what we’re doing at home or what we did last night,’’ Fischer says. “After lunch, each one wipes up after themselves and one is assigned to sweep the floor because we don’t have a custodian every day.’’

Her students agree that the school’s small size allows them each more time with the teacher.

“And we help each other out,” says Kayla Mills, 7. Time with the teacher includes Kayla’s favorite subject—games at recess. “She even plays fox and geese with us,’’ Kayla laughs.

The little school, named for a bygone mining camp that once thrived nearby, is still surrounded by the golden hayfields of some of Montana’s oldest family ranches, along with panoramic vistas of the Continental Divide.

“It has a very good teacher, computers, and a good library. Everything is automated. There’s even a satellite dish,” says Earl Wohlfrom, a local rancher and 1944 Trinity graduate.

Because of the state’s vast expanses and agricultural economy, country schools such as Trinity—one of the state’s oldest functioning elementary schools—are far from extinct. Montana today boasts about 113 schools with 40 or fewer students.

Trinity School is the heart of Canyon Creek. The community’s most anticipated events are held there—including plays and graduations. People vote or speak out at town meetings on issues facing their community. Volunteer firefighters and the valley’s 4–H youths meet there.

Although class is held in one room, the kindergarten through sixth-grade school also has a computer room and a small gymnasium.

Fischer, who does everything from opening and closing the school to answering the phone to warming up meals, is determined to prepare students for the challenges they’ll meet beyond Trinity’s familiar surroundings.

“I want them to have confidence; to believe in themselves,” Fischer says.

State test results prove rural school students do as well scholastically as peers in larger schools, even with fewer resources, says Claudette Morton, Montana Small Schools Alliance executive director.

Catherine Coleman says her granddaughter, Kayla, excels in Trinity’s comfortable setting. “She gets the attention she needs,” says Coleman, a school board member.

Unfortunately, a roster that fluctuates between three and 26 students makes survival tough, as many parents opt to take their children to larger schools in Helena where they work. But residents view the school as an important part of their heritage, says Rick Grady, a third-generation Trinity alumni and school board president. They have raised taxes, repaired leaky pipes, and painted to keep Trinity School alive.

Grady, whose father, grandfather, and two children attended Trinity, says the community is determined the school will not close.

“It would be a loss to the community … a loss of identity.”