PARKMAN — The Slack Elementary School sits on a dirt road and would not have looked out of place in the 1800s. Students run freely outside during recess, stomping through a creek and chasing animals that catch their eye.
The seemingly antiquated building and remote surroundings give the air of a step back in time. Inside the school doors, however, young kids work diligently, aided by iPads and computers.
The Slack School is a one-room schoolhouse that opened its doors more than 100 years ago and serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in Sheridan County School District 1. There are currently five students at the school, all of them boys — one kindergartener, two first-graders and two-third graders. It is the only one-room schoolhouse still in use in Sheridan County.
Teachers Alice Kerns and Brooke Johnson share instructing responsibilities, both teaching two days per week. Kerns will retire at the end of the current school year, and Johnson will take over full-time next year.
Kerns first taught at the Slack School from 1985-87 — where, along with her teaching duties, she shoveled coal into a furnace to keep the building warm — before moving on to teach many grades in the Tongue River schools. She retired for a few months but returned to the Slack School in 2013.
Kerns has family history at the school dating back more than a century. Her husband’s great great-grandparents donated the land where the schoolhouse now sits. Kerns’ grandmother taught at the school from 1914-15, when she made fresh biscuits and carried them over to the schoolhouse in the morning for the students. Her husband’s grandmother taught there as well. The connections don’t stop at teaching.
“My father-in-law went to school here,” Kerns said. “My husband went to school here. My cousins went to school here, so I’m pretty entrenched.”
Johnson grew up in Big Horn and began teaching at Tongue River schools in 2010, where she taught kindergarten through second grade. Johnson had always been interested in teaching at the Slack School, particularly because it offers the chance to teach students for multiple years. One of her sons is a first-grader at the Slack School and a younger son will be a kindergartner next year.
This is Johnson’s first year instructing at the Slack School, and it has been a learning process.
“I knew that it was going to be challenging to figure out how to get everybody what they needed,” Johnson said. “In the beginning I was kind of overwhelmed with it, but I was so glad that I had [Kerns’ assistance], and now it just feels really natural.”
Kerns and Johnson taught together for the first two weeks of the school year but have otherwise split teaching duties. Slack School students go to Tongue River Elementary School most Thursday afternoons, which is when Kerns and Johnson meet and plan for the upcoming week.
The Slack School has a different teaching style than most schools, with students often learning on their own.
A morning may entail the teacher working with first-graders for 30 minutes, then third-graders for 30 minutes, followed by kindergarteners for the same amount of time. Sometimes the five students are taught as a group, but most of the time Kerns or Johnson walk around the room and work with students individually or meet the students by the teacher’s desk.
There are no buses or staff members. Parents drop the students off in the morning. Due to its isolation, school is canceled slightly more frequently than others in the district, most often due to snow or low visibility from fog. Kids bring their own lunches, which they usually eat in the teacherage — where Slack teachers lived in past decades — next to the schoolhouse. The teacherage also houses a kitchen and dining room, and students sometimes work on art or science projects there.
Kerns believes the setting allows the children to keep their youthful innocence.
The surroundings provide a natural environment for students to learn about science, so there aren’t a ton of specific rules for outdoor behavior. The children can chase a snake in spring or cross-country ski in winter.
“Our structure is a little bit looser as far as rules are concerned, but inside in the classroom, it has to be more structured in some ways,” Kerns said. “For me to teach first-graders, the third-graders have to be working quietly and independently, and so does my kindergartner.”
There are fewer students, so teachers can try some different activities and have more hands-on time with each student. Kerns said students can also take on more work if they can handle it.
“When you only have two kids in a grade level, you don’t have to teach to the median,” Kerns said. “The median is those two kids, and therefore you can push them farther if they’re ready for it.”
Slack School is officially part of Tongue River Elementary and TRE principal Annie Griffin visits the schoolhouse a few times per year, but for the most part it is an autonomous, self-sustaining community.
Music instructor Joy McArthur, who visits every Wednesday afternoon for piano lessons, is slightly envious of the freedom afforded to the Slack students.
“When I (arrive) a lot of times right now, they’ve been at recess and they’re hiking in the creek,” McArthur said. “I’m like, ‘I wish my kids could do that at recess.’”
The Slack School is in some ways a relic of the past, but in other areas it is as modern as ever, incorporating technology and different teaching styles for its small group of kids.