Nestled among Eastern Washington’s rolling wheat fields and towering grain silos are the heartbeats of farm towns: small, rural school districts.
Bleachers swell during high school sporting events, and multipurpose rooms fill up for plays and musical performances.
Church pastors serve as substitute teachers. Local business owners and farmers moonlight as bus drivers. School buildings double as meeting sites, nighttime gyms, one-day flu shot clinics and festival centers.
“The school is the center because in a lot of our small communities, the places where people met like the grange hall or the community centers have gone away, so the school has become the place where people gather,” said William Wadlington, superintendent of the Creston School District in Lincoln County.
Nearly one-third of the nation’s public schools are located in rural areas. Eastern Washington’s farm country has a high concentration of school districts with fewer than 500 students. Whitman and Lincoln counties, the nation’s top two wheat producers, have a combined 16 small, rural school districts.
A day inside Harrington School, located near the middle of Lincoln County, confirms the charming nature of the rural-school world.
There are 96 students who are bused to Harrington School from a 328-square-mile area. Younger and older classes are separated by a gym, an auditorium and a swimming pool. A typical graduating class ranges from eight to 15 students, and Harrington boasts a 100 percent graduation rate several years running.
Town residents embrace the schoolchildren by attending events and volunteering their time or land or livestock. Class sizes are small, and students receive lots of one-on-one attention from teachers. If a student tries out for a sport, they won’t be cut. If they want a leadership role in clubs like FFA or Future Business Leaders of America, chances are they’ll get one.
“We have what Bill and Melinda Gates spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create in big schools,” said Betty Warner, Harrington School District’s agricultural teacher, referring to the foundation’s work in education. She taught in Western Washington for three decades before marrying a farmer and moving back to wheat country.
Suellen White, superintendent of the Odessa School District, has been working in rural school districts for 37 years.
“Each one is unique,” she said, but “my experience is you can’t find a better school than a good rural school. They want to make sure the kids know they are loved and have the chance to do what they want.”
Hundreds of residents recently followed their small-town teams to Spokane for basketball championships and a multicounty musical performance at the INB Performing Arts Center.
“It’s a partnership of need and of love, and the fences are down,” said Wadlington, the Creston superintendent.
Home team spirit
Arley Bischoff had a bet to settle with his brother. His question: On Feb. 7, 1959, who won the basketball game between Wilson Creek and Harrington?
Kathy Countryman, Harrington School District’s office manager, seemed amused as she repeated her caller’s request to those sitting nearby.
A 1959 yearbook in the school’s library offered some insight, although no concrete answer. The schools played twice that season. Harrington won once and lost once. The dates of the games were not recorded.
Harrington has about 400 people, a Studebaker museum and a refurbished opera house. But there’s no cafe or watering hole where townsfolk gather regularly.
The school is the hot spot.
“They don’t pack the opera house like they do the school,” said Lorne Howe, who’d joined a friend for a sit-down and a beer in front of his garage on a recent sunny afternoon. “The school’s quite a thing.”
Howe’s wife, Terry, is a city council member.
“I try to go to everything I can,” she said. “I go to get my kid fill. They are my pseudo-children.”
Linda Mielke, a school board member, said the school takes a similar approach with students.
“Kids don’t fall through the cracks here,” she said. “Every teacher knows every kid, what they are doing and not doing. We don’t lose kids.”
Tanniesha Rodriguez, an eighth-grader who just moved to Harrington from Tacoma, said she’s noticed the more individualized attention. And, she said, “the kids treat you like family.”
Sports are important. Signs in each small town boast of state championship wins, a point of pride for the whole community.
“There’s nothing else that brings everyone together quite like a basketball game. It’s the place where all the farmers come together and chat; talk about old times,” said Mike Perry, the Harrington school superintendent.
Odessa and Harrington play on athletic teams together.
“As rural districts have shrunk over the years, we’ve had to co-op to give students every opportunity because there are not enough students to form a team,” said White, the Odessa superintendent. Harrington residents travel to Odessa for football games and “about everyone in town is there.”
Rural schools often lack electives, such as drama or choir. To make sure students still have those experiences, school leaders come up with alternatives.
Missoula Children’s Theater visited Harrington School District earlier this month, for example, in a weeklong event that involved nearly all of the district’s 96 students for a staging of “The Little Mermaid.” A school board member played piano. Volunteers provided homemade cookies and snacks for the cast.
“Most of the town comes,” to the two performances, said 10-year-old Annika Walters, who played Celia, a mermaid.
Odessa is staging “Westward Whoa.”
Work started in November on the annual musical performance. “The whole school participates,” White said. “We have to have it on two nights because we can’t fit everyone in the multipurpose room.”
Outside of sports and performances, Harrington has another attribute that draws the community in: an indoor swimming pool that’s open to the community three times a week in the winter.
Harrington resident Brenda Victor regularly takes her children – 8-year-old Laurel, 6-year-old William and 4-year-old Ethan. The middle child fearlessly jumps off the diving board into the deep end.
“It’s a good way for them to get exercise,” Victor said.
Farm next door
Up the hill from the Harrington school, “I love you” is painted on top of a barn that’s visible from classroom windows. While the owner, Linda Colbert, intended the message for her husband, she might as well have written it for the students.
Colbert drives a bus for the school district. She donates chicken eggs to the school that students put in incubators to hatch. She tells a story of a little boy who kept wishing for the chick to be a turkey, so she snuck a couple of baby turkeys in for him.
FFA students raise pigs in pens on her farmland. In October, all of the students go to pick a pumpkin in her patch.
The annual fall festival, a time when Harrington alumni come to town and the school hosts its one football game of the year, Colbert’s farm becomes festival central. There’s a hay maze, a pumpkin patch, and a petting zoo with llamas, donkeys, goats, pigs and miniature horses.
“We could literally call her for anything,” said Perry, Harrington’s superintendent.
Colbert, who has lived next to the school since 1980, is modest about her contributions.
“There’s just something about working with kids,” she said. “If I can make a difference in one child’s life, that’s worth it.”
Students give back
Rural communities follow the kids. And in return, the kids take part in the community.
Students clean up roads, serve dinner at the Lions Club, rake leaves, and help with set-up and tear-down at town events.
“We send our kids out,” said Wadlington, the Creston superintendent.
In Harrington, “One of the things we’ve been working on is banding together, bringing the school and community closer,” Kathy Hoob said. She and her husband, Mike, own Harrington’s only grocery store. “We’ve been involving the kids in the Chamber (of Commerce) and in projects so they can see how the community works together.”
Students and Chamber of Commerce members collected close to 60 baskets filled with Christmas treats, food and stocking stuffers, and then delivered them to the town’s elderly residents door-to-door. Bud McPeak, a 1940 Harrington School graduate, appreciated the gesture and the food.
“I just finished my ham,” he said.
A community hub
Sprague residents can go to exercise classes at their school, get their annual flu shots there, or attend chamber of commerce meetings in the building.
“We are the hub,” said Sprague School District Superintendent Patrick Whipple. “We are the place where people come,” and the district wants them to feel welcome. There’s no charge for use of the gym.
The small Lincoln County town lacks a newspaper, so the school district includes community items in its newsletter.
Whipple said, “When you pass a levy at 71 or 72 percent, that says a lot about how people feel about the importance of having school here.”