Eighth-grader Avery LaDue is reporting to her class on a book she just finished. “Here’s a bit of a warning,” she says. “This gets a little confusing. And it can drag. So just stay with me on this one.” Not all of them can. The audience seems mostly bewildered by her presentation. Whether they understand the material or not, two of Avery’s classmates, Rosie and Ledger, smile and clap appreciatively at the conclusion of the report.
Avery is the school’s oldest student and the only eighth-grader. Rosie and Ledger are in kindergarten. All three attend the Horse Creek School in western North Dakota. With a dozen pupils, Horse Creek is the only school in its district. It is one of just five one-room schools still active in the state.
The rural population in North Dakota has been declining for decades, and since 1985, consolidation has reduced the number of school districts from 312 to 173. Of those, 129 have fewer than 300 students, and 34 have less than 100. North Dakota’s steady loss of rural population makes it increasingly difficult to justify the continued operation of underutilized schools. But closing and consolidating schools has its limits. “You cannot put a 5-year-old on a bus for an hour and a half each day,” says the state superintendent of schools, Kirsten Baesler.