One-room schools were commonplace throughout rural portions of various countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In most rural (country) and small town schools, all of the students met in a single room. There, a single teacher taught academic basics to five to eight grade levels of elementary-age boys and girls. While in many areas one-room schools are no longer used, it is not uncommon for them to remain in developing nations and rural areas, such as much of the Falklands and Shetlands.
Mission Ridge School was one of the early schools built in Mason County, West Virginia. It has been moved to the West Virginia State Farm Museum complex near Point Pleasant. Examination of the materials in this building indicates that boards and timbers were hand-sawed and also hand-planed. Square nails were used throughout the building. Except for the roof and a few boards in the floor, all of the material in this building is original. The blackboard really is a black board, made of wide boards painted black. It was not until much later that slate was used for chalkboards, although students often had individual slates for writing practice.
Teachers in one-room schools were often former students themselves. Their role is well-described by a student from Kentucky in the 1940s: "The teachers that taught in the one room, rural schools were very special people. During the winter months they would get to the school early to get a fire started in the potbelly stove, so the building would be warm for the students. On many occasions they would prepare a hot, noon meal on top of the stove, usually consisting of soup or stew of some kind. They took care of their students like a new mother hen would care for her newly hatched chicks; always looking out for their health and welfare."
A typical school day was 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a morning and an afternoon recess of 15 minutes each and an hour period for lunch. "The older students were given the responsibility of bringing in water, carrying in coal or wood for the stove. The younger students would be given responsibilities according to their size and gender such as cleaning the black board (chalkboard), taking the erasers outside for dusting plus other duties that they were capable of doing."
Transportation for children who lived too far to walk was often provided by horse-drawn kid hack or sulky, which could only travel a limited distance in a reasonable amount of time each morning and evening, or students might ride a horse, these being put out to pasture in an adjoining paddock during the day. In more recent times, students rode bicycles.
The school house was the center and focus for thousands of rural communities, hamlets and small towns. Often, town meetings and picnics were also held there.
The vast majority of one-room schools in the United States are no longer used as schools and have either been torn down or converted for other purposes. However, in some rural communities, including among the Amish, one-room or two-room schools are still used, primarily for elementary education, with students graduating to local or regional middle and high schools.
The Iron Hill School #112C, now the Iron Hill Museum, is in Newark, Delaware and is an example of a one-room schoolhouse constructed for African-American students during the days of segregation. The school, constructed in 1923, was one of 89 funded by Pierre S. duPont for black students in Delaware. DuPont's philanthropy project was aimed at improving the educational situation of blacks in Delaware at the neglect of the State Legislature. DuPont also funded construction and improvements for white schools. All of the DuPont-funded schools were designed by the Newark, New Jersey architectural firm of Guilbert & Betelle.
The Iron Hill School is currently being utilized as a natural history museum, but plans to construct a new museum adjacent to the site include future interpretation of the school building to commemorate the history of the school and the community. An oral history project has recorded nearly 40 hours of interviews that capture the history from 1923 till its closing in the early 1960s.
The teacher's residence, or teacherage, was often attached to the school, or very close by, so that a male teacher's wife and family were an integral part of the management and support system for the school. Single, female teachers were more often billeted or boarded with a local family to provide for social norms requiring social supervision of single females.
Many one roomed schools also served as the local chapel on Sundays, and evening/Saturday meeting places for local people and activities. Being mostly rural, many schools had no water or sanitation and this was often provided by converting wells into toilets (through the use of a plank with a hole in it), melting snow for water in the winter and relying on the help of nearby farms in the summer. In the 1950's a milk truck would sometimes come in the summer weeks offering a variety of dairy products (principally milk).
Teaching standards often varied from school to school as the teacher was compelled to coach children of all ages/grades within one room. This sometimes meant younger students often listened to, and became aware of concepts and teaching that, normally, they would not encounter for some years. This has sometimes been presented as being one cause of the "precocious" period of the early 60's.
Motorized school buses in the 1920s made longer distances possible, and one-room schools were soon consolidated in most portions of the United States into multiple classroom schools where classes could be held separately for various grade levels. Gradually, one-room school houses were replaced. Most one-room schools had been replaced by larger schools by World War II except in the most rural areas.
However, they are still common in rural parts of Australia. Megalong Public School is a good example of a one-room school.
In Calvert County, Maryland, Port Republic School Number 7 closed its doors in 1932 and sat unused for over 40 years. Then, in 1976 the Calvert Retired Teachers Association, looking for a Bicentennial Year project, decided to restore the one-room schoolhouse. On July 24, 1977, after months of hard work by teachers and community volunteers, the old school bell rang out once more, and the little one-room school house, filled with its memories and memorabilia, was ready for visitors. It is now one of the county's tourist attractions. A similar project was done in Queen Anne's County, Maryland by retired Teachers and Community Volunteers. The restored schoolhouse is located in front of Queen Anne's County High School
In Iowa, over 125 small one-room school houses have been turned into local museums. The buildings in some places found new purpose as homes.
The One Room School House Project of Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, includes listings and information on some 880 schools throughout the state and nation. The information, pictures, and stories included in this site have been collected and sent to the project by researchers and historians from across America.