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School teacher Kate Carlisle reads to students from the Sasdaze School in Bear Creek, Saskatchewan September 2, 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
School teacher Kate Carlisle reads to students from the Sasdaze School in Bear Creek, Saskatchewan September 2, 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

One-room schools 'part of the soul of the community' Add to ...

It is the last of its kind, the sole survivor of a tradition of one-room public schools that once formed the backbone of childhood life on the Canadian Prairies. Romanticized as a spare, storybook fixture of early 20th-century rural communities, such classrooms were in fact born out of necessity - and that was the case with Sasdaze School in the tiny hamlet of Bear Creek, Sask.

Sasdaze is a community hub and point of pride for the 80 or so residents of this northern Saskatchewan hamlet. Built in 2003, it is also an icon in jeopardy, its declining enrolment - it is down to six students - putting its future in doubt.

The school opened after Bear Creek's residents became fed up with dropout rates, believing their students were ill-served by larger schools a 30-minute drive away. They struck a deal with the local school board, but only after putting up about $116,000 to buy a modified trailer and a home for a teacher. The man who led the fight was Dean Herman, 42, a logger with a Grade 10 education who volunteers as the town's mayor.

"Being a logger is not where I want my kids to be. … You've got to get educated, " Mr. Herman says, adding: "We'll keep the school here going as long as we can."

Teacher Kate Carlisle walks through her modified construction trailer, pointing out Sasdaze School's makeshift sections.

"That's the art centre," she says, striding past a lone red table with craft supplies on it. Next to it, a pair of tables each with two young children working diligently in a notebook - two Grade 5s doing math, two Grade 3s working on a game that teaches about agriculture. Behind that, a table for eating (it's one child's birthday in a few days, and there's homemade chocolate cake to be had), a row of four computers and a small carpeted reading circle with two more children - the Grade 2s.

The six kids, who are all cousins, are the entire class this year, though the school accommodates kindergarten through Grade 6. Outside, the hamlet has built a playground that includes a ski hill and an ice rink, as well as a swing set.

"It's a nice little place," says Ms. Carlisle, 53.

She was drawn here seven years ago by an opportunity to use a co-operative teaching style, a small class size and, she confides, a hunt for a new start after a divorce. She and another teacher rotate one-month shifts, between which Ms. Carlisle retreats to her acreage near Regina, about eight hours south.

"I never did teach in a very traditional way, and partly that's why I ended up here, I think," she says. "Because of the low student-teacher ratio and because the families are involve in the education, there's a real culture of learning."

"Sasdaze" means "Bear Creek" in the traditional Dené language of this area, which is largely aboriginal but non-treaty. The classroom is one of thousands of one-room schools that once dotted Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"It was part of the soul of the community," says University of Calgary historian Paul Stortz, who has studied the legacy of one-room schools in the West. "You see a picture of a one-room school - that embodies the human intrepidness and ambition to overcome the most onerous and austere of odds and make things work in Canada."

Numbers peaked before the Depression, but the schools began to close as provinces moved toward bigger schools - in Saskatchewan it was Tommy Douglas, Canada's health-care patriarch, who led this shift in search of higher education standards.

"They found that the one-room schools weren't cutting it in terms of educational attainment," Prof. Stortz says. "There were problems identified by the ministries of education across the Prairies, saying you know what, this isn't moving us in the right direction." This coincided with the urbanization of the once-agrarian West - the teachers themselves embodied that divide, often representing the possibility that children might find "a better job in the big city," Prof. Stortz says.

Only a few schools are left and functioning - three in Ontario, five in Newfoundland and Labrador, two in the Northwest Territories, one in British Columbia and at least one in Quebec. (In Alberta, Mennonite colonies all have their own one-room schools, but they're closed to outsiders.)

Those that remain strike a nostalgic tone for many, Prof. Stortz says. "There was a romantic movement in the early part of the 20th century in Canada that romanticized Canadians as being honest, pure, driven - anything else you might think of as being a positive characteristic. Hearty, long-lived. … So the one-room schools to many people might, in fact, embody that," he says. "It's like a coalescing of what 'Canada' meant back when Canada was being settled."

In Sasdaze, the children all enjoy, and appear to excel at, academics. Ms. Carlisle attributes that to the small class size. Their work is largely independent - books, some of which are in written in Dené, are split into 24 reading levels that aren't grade-specific, for instance.

"I'm in Grade 5 and I'm a level 23," proclaims Sara Woodward, 10, before going back to her math chart.

Kim Woodward, 35, is a single mother who is thankful her five children, including Sara, have come through the school. "For me, my kids learn more in this community, going to this school," says Ms. Woodward, who volunteers to run after-school programming. "More quiet, more relaxing. As a parent, you can help in the education."

Sasdaze's enrolment numbers are dwindling, though. If the class gets much smaller, the school (which has since been bought back from the town by the board) risks being closed. Local superintendent of education Jason Young declines to speculate what the "magic number" would be - the last one-room school he pulled the plug on had only one student.

Mr. Herman hopes Sasdaze will stay open. "The kids' future always starts in school. If they don't get the education they need, they don't have a future," Mr. Herman says. "And it all starts at kindergarten, here at home."

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