We no longer think of yellow school buses on country roads as signs of progress in education but, in the 1950s, they stood for more than transportation. Buses, not yet painted yellow, marked the demise of the thousands of one room schools that had served country kids for a century.
Wisconsin, like other northern states, made an early commitment to creating a public school system accessible to all children–rural and urban, native and foreign born. Any resident between the ages of four and twenty could attend public school.
Since the state’s population was predominately rural until the 1910s and local transportation moved no faster than a horse could walk, even mid-sized counties like Sauk, Winnebago and Chippewa had schools by the hundreds.
Each school was supervised by a citizen board that built and maintained the school house, purchased furniture and equipment, hired the teacher and levied taxes on themselves and their neighbors to pay for it all. Their work was overseen by a superintendent elected by county voters. Some were county seat politicos with little interest in the job except that it was a job.
The large majority–as an examination of the annual reports they were obliged to submit reveals–were hard-working, conscientious apostles of education who traveled the back roads to cajole, exhort, persuade local boards to improve their schools and, when necessary, threaten to withhold county and state funding from those that failed.
They must have succeeded. By the turn of the 19th century, Wisconsin, again like other northern states, had one of the highest literacy rates in a country that itself possessed one of the largest percentages of literate residents in the world. And this was in a nation of immigrants for whom English was a second language mastered largely at school.
Times changed and schools had to respond. The basic readin’, ‘ritin and ‘ritmetic of the rural school curriculum was not adequate for the mid-20th century. Fewer than one half of rural school students went on to complete high-school.
The long and difficult battle to create the “integrated” school systems our children attend today was not completed until the early 1960s. The one room school became a revered icon of nostalgic musing, but its time had passed, as if carried away on the seat of a yellow bus.