Traveling Exhibit Showcases Tiny Schools Across Montana

Feb 27, 2017

Neil Chaput de Saintonge and Keith Graham's photographs featured in MSUB's Northcutt Steele Gallery through Mar. 30.
Credit Nail Chaput de Saintonge & Keith Graham

There is certainly power in numbers, but one single room is all you need for many elementary institutions across Montana. The Big Sky state has the most one-room schools in the nation.

Dan Rask, Executive Director of the Montana Small School Alliance, said one-room schools still exist in the 21st century because Montana has farm and ranch kids living far from town.

“I just don’t think it is in the cards to close those schools because they are too far to get to," Rask said.

“We have a law on the books that says you don’t transports students on a bus over one hour one way and that would pretty much why these schools have not closed," said Rask.

While state law makes them necessary, Rask says it's tightly knit community that makes them an enjoyable success.

“That’s one of the things that’s characteristic of successful schools and students is that they have great community support and they just feel like family and that’s just comes naturally in these small schools,” said Rask.

Divide, Montana, in rural Silver Bow County has strong support for its one-room school.  Judy Boyle should know -- she has been there for a dozen years.

“Many of the people here went to school here, and their children went here and are parents of children that go here," Boyle said. “So there is a whole trickle-down effect. It’s in everybody’s blood I guess you could say.”

Boyle has been teaching in one-room schools for close to two decades, both here in Montana and in New Hampshire. She cherishes the relationships she has with her students; she knows where each student ended a school year and starts that student the next year right where he or she left off. That's how many of her students work above grade-level.

“And when you look at all those grade levels in one room the younger students learn from the lessons I’m teaching the older students," Boyle said. “I often hear them say ‘I heard you do this last year. I know how to do this.’”

Both Rask and Boyle said students from one-room schools perform well on the state tests and display a confidence when they move on to high school.

Credit Neil Chaput de Saintonge & Keith Graham

Boyle said, “They enter into high school and suddenly realize that they have done a lot of this work already and find themselves in the advanced classes and advanced courses in high school.”

It's not just the students who get to enjoy the benefits -- teachers do as well.

“It’s just a very rewarding experience and I would highly recommend it to any teacher because the possibilities are endless," said Boyle.

This year in Montana, there are 72 one-room schools.

Snapshots of many of these one-room schools, including the one in Divide, are in a photographic exhibit, Chasing Time, currently at the Northcutt Steele Gallery, Montana State University-Billings. 

The traveling exhibit has 30 photographs taken around Montana in 2013 and 2014 by UM photojournalism professor Keith Graham and Missoula-based photographer Neil Chaput de Saintonge.

Credit Neil Chaput de Saintonge & Keith Graham

The exhibit is up through March 30, 2017, with an artist reception and talk with Chaput de Saintonge on March 23, 2017.

On Fri. March 24, 2017 at 10:30am, Chaput de Saintonge will also offer a free presentation on recent trends in digital photographic equipment in the lecture hall next to the gallery. The presentation is open to the public and no reservations are necessary.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Montana Art Gallery Directors Association, and supported in part by the Montana Arts Council, the Coal Tax Trust Fund for Cultural and Aesthetic Projects and the National Endowment for the Arts.