Melville Elementary, a 124 Year Old School

Spring 2020 Issue by Susan Metcalf photos by Stu Hoefle

A 124 Year Old Country School

Nestled in the shadows of the Crazy Mountains just south of the town of Melville sits an iconic rural school, Melville Elementary, which was established in Sweet Grass County in 1896. Twenty-seven students attend this rural school taught by three teachers. Seventeen of those students are siblings and/or cousins, and many of them are second- or third-generation Melville School students. 

 Although Melville School is thriving now, just 13 years ago there were only three students enrolled. The population growth of the school is mostly attributed to the cycle of birth rates in this ranching community. About a decade ago, former Melville School students came home from college or came back to the ranches they were raised on and began to have children, and soon the school was bursting at the seams.

Four years ago, the Melville School Board found itself in the enviable position of having to fund an addition to the school to make room for the homegrown population explosion. That makes Melville School something of an anomaly among rural schools in Montana, including the other two rural schools in Sweet Grass County, McLeod School and Greycliff School, which are struggling to survive in the face of declining enrollment.

Montana once had 2,793 rural one-room schoolhouses. Sweet Grass County alone had 69 school districts. Schools were situated every three to five miles along established routes of travel, that being the distance students could be expected to walk or ride on horseback. Now, there are only about 60 rural schools still operating in Montana.

The location of Melville School makes it convenient for many students to attend, as Melville is 21 miles from Big Timber and 24 miles from Harlowton. It is much easier for area families to send their children to Melville than to bus them to “town school.” Most Melville School graduates go on to attend Sweet Grass County High School in Big Timber.

There are definite advantages to attending the small school.

“You get to interact with kids of all ages, and you learn to be a good role model,” said eighth-grader Adelyn Tronrud, a second-generation Melville student. “You have kids younger than you in your classroom, and you have to help teach them, too.”

Paige Wertheimer, a seventh-grader, said, “Most of us live on a ranch, so we can relate to each other.” However, Melville School does accept students from out of the district, so some parents transport their students from Big Timber, for the rural school experience that Adelyn described. 

Ettje Plaggemeyer, who grew up on a ranch in the area but attended “town school” in Big Timber, is the head teacher at Melville School, where she is in her fifth year.

In her view, a crucial role for teachers is helping students fail and then recover, and celebrating their hard work in reaching goals.

“In a larger school, this isn't as easily achieved,” Plaggemeyer said. “… Being able to relate daily and individually to every student in the rural setting makes my teaching more effective.”

Some critics of one-room schoolhouses cite lack of socialization as a drawback. Plaggemeyer begs to differ.

“Melville School has a great social environment,” she said. “Eighth-graders play with kindergarteners on a dirt playground. I can’t say that all students at Melville School are best friends, but they are all respectful of each other and understand that they learn differently and/or need different things.”

Eighth-grader William Donald, a third-generation Melville School student, agreed, saying it’s “less dramatic and chaotic” than schools in town.

Skye Rouwhorst, another Big Timber native, who is in her fourth year of teaching there, had her own reasons for cherishing the Melville School environment.

 “I have the opportunity to get to know these kids for up to nine years,” she said. “My fifth-graders now have been in my homeroom class since they were in second grade. They are so much like my own kids that the thought of them going to the ‘big kids’ classroom next year makes me very sad.”

“There is never a dull moment in rural school teaching,” she continued. “… With such a wide variety of learners, we as teachers are constantly providing scaffolding to one group while challenging another. Our students also get a unique opportunity to learn from each other by being exposed to material sometimes years before they would at other schools.”

Melville School has weathered many a storm that swept down out of the Crazy Mountains in its 124 years of existence, and it narrowly escaped the Chichi Fire in November of 2007, which burned 30,000 acres right up to the school yard. And if the community of Melville has its way, Melville School will continue to educate students for the next century.   

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