Recess at Landaff’s Blue School
Guest post by Jeff Woodburn
LANDAFF – Our vast, complicated education system produced its annual results last week as high schools across the country held graduation ceremonies. In New Hampshire some ten thousand high school seniors were handed diplomas thus finishing a 13 year process at a cost of around $135,000 per pupil. Educating children has become a costly, centralized and specialized business, and it seems no one is fully satisfied with the results. Education experts and parents worry about the quality of instruction, class size and student safety, yet school districts have become large, impersonal institutions. Over the past 70 years, the number of school districts has declined from 117,000 to around 14,000 even though the student population has almost doubled reports the American School Board Association.
So there should be no surprise that New Hampshire’s once dominant one-room or tiny schools have dwindled to just two: one being Landaff’s Blue School (the other is the Croydon Village School, near Newport).
The path of preservation is never simple. It is usually a combination of circumstances and attitudes. Landaff is defined by a rugged, inhospitable or at least inaccessible landscape—most notably because of the prominent and protected White Mountain National Forest and the Wild Ammonoosuc River. With less than 376 residents spread over its 28 square miles, Landaff has the distinction of having the second smallest numeric increase in population of the any of the smaller communities in the state. Since 1950, the town added just 36 new residents, including Jason Cartwright, who moved here from Texas ten years ago to run the Tender Corporation in Littleton. Now as a member of the school board, he says the Blue School, much like the town, is not just an anomaly or a relic, but rather is “intentionally small.”
The Blue School sits on a small knoll of land bordered by a stream, a simple baseball field and the intersection of two country roads. There is not a house in view, and little room to park. Parking wasn’t a concern when the school was built in 1858, the year of Teddy Roosevelt’s birth; the Blue School was one of six schools that served Landaff. Over time, the schools were consolidated to one. Former one-room schools, which dotted the rural landscape, were routinely sold off as transportation became easier and were folded into the existing housing stock.
A closer view reveals the building’s antiquity – like the hard wood floors, the large double hung wood stash windows, the thimble that once served the wood stove, old coat hooks in a small ante room that lead to the two small sink-less lavatories (there is shared sink in the ante room) with old tin signs above each. A second structure, a modern, modular building sits behind the old school house. The two buildings are carefully joined by a roofed breezeway that ensures an actual and visual transition between the two. The newer rectangular building was added a few years back when there was a jump in enrollment. The numbers didn’t hold and the space now serves as the library and lunch room. Instruction occurs in the large main room of the school house thus protecting the school’s rare status.
The 18 students, ranging in grades from Kindergarten to third grade, begin their day with the pledge of allegiance to the flag and then sing a patriotic song with the Head Teacher Claire Cochrane and two students on the piano. Mrs. Cochrane is a dawdling, unassuming, later-middle aged woman with auburn hair and a conservative pink knit sweater. At the piano crooning a tune she more resembles Edith Bunker, the fictional housewife in the 1970s sitcom, All in the Family, than a strict, dour schoolmarm. At first glance, she hardly seems up to the task.
While many elementary school teachers are notorious for their razor sharp efficiency and “type A” personality, Mrs. Cochrane is more like the intuitive mother of large family. She’s an unflappable, multi-tasker, who moves seamlessly across grade levels personalizing instruction for each child, all the while answering the telephone and performing tasks like changing the paper towel dispenser. On this day, she has another teacher, who handles the Title One services, and an aide.
The new trend in education is to move from lecture style instruction to a more student centered learning. Ironically, with varying grade levels this is precisely what one-room school teachers have always done. The students are in four separate groupings by grade and Cochrane provides a short instruction, assigns a task, models how to do it and with a few questions assesses their understanding of the activity. She then moves on to another group, pausing to say, “I differentiate by necessity.” A one-room school teacher must be a “jack of all trades,” and learn to improvise, be flexible, and like independence. Dr. Robert Patterson, the Interim Superintendent of Schools that oversees the Blue School, agrees the “with the wrong teacher (we’d) have a horror show.”
Mrs. Cochrane came to Landaff after various small school experiences. For 29 years, she ran the Walden (VT) Academy for Small People, a private Kindergarten to 3rd grade school that she founded. It was there where she honed her laid back style. Private school teachers are not required to be college educated or certified, so it wasn’t until 1987 that she graduated from college and then went on to earn a master’s degree as well.
Her dual passion is bringing arts into the school at an early age and promoting learning through multi-aged grouping. Superintendent Patterson credits Cochrane with a strong emphasis on incorporating the arts in the curriculum, especially the spring musical play based on the story “Bunnicula.” Learning is best accommodated in setting with children of varying ages, Cochrane believes. She points to the interaction between students; the younger ones look up to the older children and try to keep up, and the older children learn how to nurture and teach the younger children and thus develop confidence and leadership skills. She also says the small, intimate setting removes any stigma associated with a child being held back. Without strict compartmentalized classes, “it’s not a big deal,” she adds. The sheer size of the school seems to encourage more students’ freedom to institute some of their own ideas, for example, this year the students decided to elect class officers and produce their own newspaper. These ideas, Cochrane explains, “bubbles up from them.” Reading, writing and math are offered, but so are French, guidance, karate, and technology.
Students need structure, Cochrane adds, “we rarely get off schedule.” Arguably, the amount of time on task is the most beneficial aspect of the Blue School. The routine is drilled into them for four years, and the students follow it without pause. Transitioning students from grade to grade typically involves a new teacher with a different style and personality. It takes children time – sometimes a few months – to make the full adjustment. Four years with 18 students also gives the teacher the time to really get to know the kids, and this Cocraine says ensures that “nobody falls through the cracks.”
Looking over Cochraine and Patterson’s shoulders is an active and committed school board and beyond that a community with strong personal loyalties to the Blue School. The school’s size “removes a lot of bureaucracy,” School board member Cartwright says, “There are not a lot of people to oversee.” This allows the board to get into the smallest of details – like reviewing student attendance and academic records, specific purchasing decisions, and soliciting volunteers to complete projects that most districts would hire out, like installing computers, building desks and planting flower gardens.
It is indeed rare to find a resident without personal ties to the school. There also seems to be recognition that what they have is fragile and community responds with a rare civic vigor. Last year, the town approved $5,000 in surplus town funds (which was matched by private donations) to build a new playground.
It is easy to be charmed by the Blue School, but one-room schools are in the words of Superintendent Patterson, “a thing of the past” and “there is such thing as a school being too small.” He’s right; of the 320 elementary schools in the state only 26 have less than 100 students. As regulations continue to mount small schools struggle to keep up. More than ever small rural schools are forgotten. Mary Heath, the Deputy Commissioner of NH Department of Education, said the landmark “No Child Left Behind law didn’t take into account rural areas.”
Still, a quick review of the school performances is impressive. With such a small sampling the Department of Education doesn’t even publish the school’s NECAP (the standardized test called the New England Common Assessment Program) results (although Cochrane claims their a lot better than average). Blue School boasts an attendance rate that is higher and cost per pupil figure that is lower than most schools. Obviously, Landaff’s student teacher ratio is near the top.
“There are a collection of factors that cause things to come together in Landaff,” Patterson said, those include a great teacher, small classes, cultural commitment to the school and community that is willing to take ownership and chip in when needed. The Blue School, says Betsy Cavicchio, former school board member, “is (part of) our identity.” She predicts the town would support keeping the school open “regardless of what it costs.” The only real threat to the school, she said, is the “town growing” too big.
Jeff Woodburn, of Dalton, is a social studies teacher at White Mountains Regional High School and is a part-owner of the Woodburn House Restaurant, which was started by his grandparents in 1948.