North Dakota is a large state of 70,704 square miles with a small population which peaked in 1930 at 680,845 people and then entered a steady decline to about 642,000 people in 2000. Though many North Dakotans enjoy the wide open spaces, the lack of highway traffic, and the sense that we all know each other, the combination of great space and small population sets up a series of difficult problems for school districts.
Since the first school consolidation law was passed in 1910 encouraging school districts to re-organize and bring several small schools together under one roof, the state legislature, county and city commissioners, and school districts have tried to find the solution to providing an excellent education to students in rural areas and small towns without taxing the residents beyond their ability to pay.
The first school in the northern part of Dakota Territory opened in Bismarck in 1873. However, when North Dakota achieved statehood in 1889, there were no public high schools, and though the state had a system for certifying teachers, most teachers were young girls with little education or experience.
The state and school districts persisted in demanding advanced education for teachers and by the end of the 1920s, only 1% of teachers lacked a high school diploma. Parents saw the value of education for their children, too, so public school attendance reached a high point in 1923 with 176,000 students (2006 enrollment was 95,000 students). However, few of those 1923 students attended or graduated from high school and fewer went to college. Through the 1930s, more female students enrolled in school and graduated high school than male students, a fact which reflected boys’ greater value as farm labor and broader opportunities for work in cities.
The school situation became quite bleak in the early 1930s when the Great Depression led to reduced property tax collections (which support schools), and school boards reduced teachers’ salaries. Even though school attendance and high school graduation rates rose in the 1930s, rural schools lost necessary funding and underwent a period of consolidation to reduce the cost of building maintenance, teachers’ salaries, and other school expenses. The Depression left North Dakota schools with a teacher shortage that forced school districts to hire poorly prepared teachers for many more years.
The hardships of the Great Depression ultimately led to a startling statistic of the Korean War era: 13% of North Dakota’s Army draftees failed the standard test known as the Armed Forces Qualification test. In the 1951 – 1952 schoolyear, there were 2697 rural school teachers in North Dakota. Twenty per cent of these were not certified, and 15% had not attended college at all. More than half the rural teachers had one year or less of college studies.
Over the next fifty years, North Dakota instituted higher qualifications for teacher, but school consolidation was seen as an important part of the process of improving North Dakota’s educational system. School administrators and scholars assumed that rural one-room schools were the “weakest link in the education system” and that town schools were too small to “carry out an efficient well-rounded program of education.” Though consolidation sometimes created discord among neighboring communities, it resulted in improved school resources for more students and reduced the number of one-room schools to eight by 2005.
In this document set you will find materials demonstrating the challenges facing Divide County schools which led to the formation of a single county school district in the early 1960s.
Educational Achievement in North Dakota City, Town and Rural Schools by Robert D. Cole (Departmental Bulletin of the University of North Dakota, Vol. XV April 1931, No. 2).
North Dakota Blue Book, 1997
State of North Dakota. 26th Annual Report of the Director of Secondary Education 1933. SHSND Series 130101.
55th Annual Report of the Director of Secondary Education of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the year ending Jun 30, 1962. SHSND Series 130101.
Robert D. Cole, Educational Achievement in North Dakota City, Town and Rural Schools (Departmental Bulletin of the University of North Dakota, Vol. XV April 1931, No. 2).
Cecile Wehrman, Editor, The Journal, Crosby, ND.
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