by Ron Wilson, director, Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University

Travel through rural America along country roads, and you will occasionally spot an old, dilapidated building near the road. The roof and walls are in poor repair, the windows are broken out, and the yard is overcome with weeds. This long-neglected rustic structure was the one-room school, once at the forefront of public education in Kansas.
K-State doctoral student Matthew Skillen brings to us the story of one of the last remaining one-room school teachers. Laurence Pacey of Miltonvale, Kansas has a rich history from the one-room school era of Kansas public education.

Laurence Pacey´s father was a farmer and a teacher. The senior Mr. Pacey had never attended high school, but was able to pass the state test to become a teacher. Laurence Pacey says, “Everything I learned about teaching I learned from my dad.”

He learned his lessons well, but his career did not get off to an easy start. After taking normal classes to become a teacher and passing the state tests, he applied to eight or ten schools to be a teacher – and never got a nibble. Perhaps it was reverse gender bias. School boards kept asking if he could play the piano, which he could not.

Then he came across a school which apparently had some rough kids. One little girl had her arm broken on the playground, for example, so the school board members thought a male teacher might help bring order. They told Mr. Pacey that if he would lower his wage from $55 a month to $50 a month, they would hire him. Talk about teachers bring underpaid.

Anyway, he took the job and began a 25-year career of teaching in rural one-room schools. Mr. Pacey says he had three jobs during his adult life: “I was of course a school teacher, I had the farm, and I was a father to thirteen children.” Wow. That´s one way to generate increased enrollment.

Mr. Pacey taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, plus science, health, and social studies. But he says, “I took every opportunity to teach real life lessons.” Those lessons had a lasting impact.

For example, one time he bused the kids to a nearby railroad bridge when the county was doing bridge repair and had them watch the foreman operate a pile driver. Then he had the kids send the foreman a thank you note. Nearly thirty-six years later, the foreman passed away. Among the things he had saved, his wife and daughter found the letters that those kids had written more than three decades before.

Another time a tornado destroyed a nearby home and Mr. Pacey had the students prepare and deliver a meal to the family. Every day he would play baseball in the school yard during recess with the students.

His classroom methods were what today´s education faculty might call student-centered and adaptive. Mr. Pacey says, “You´ve got to start where the students are ready and you´ve got to be flexible.”

In 1963, the Kansas Legislature enacted the unification law which required many small schools to close and consolidate with neighboring schools. Interestingly, Mr. Pacey continued to teach in a one-room school for eight years after the law was passed before his local school was consolidated. Mr. Pacey is now 86 years old and retired. He lives on the family farm near the rural community of Miltonvale, population 504 people. Now, that´s rural.
Mr. Pacey says, “In the twenty-five years that I taught, I had the best darn kids. We learned a lot together and I hope, in the end, that I was able to make a lasting impression on them just as they have on me.”

Travel through rural America and you might see the remnant of a one-room school along the way. But you will also see a rural society which has become strong, based on a deep belief in education and support of local schools. We commend Laurence Pacey for making a difference in the lives of students for 25 years and for reminding us how important teachers are, in schools large or small.

By Ron Wilson, director, Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.