The parents help with snow removal. School board members pitch in to help with custodial work. The lone teacher is rewarded for meeting yearly goals. Students of varying ages sit in wooden chairs at wooden desks, their daily assignments written on the chalkboard.
It may sound like something out of "Little House on the Prairie," or a quaint description of a one-room school house from a century ago. But the above scenario is being played out still today at Oneida Township School District No. 3, located outside of Grand Ledge in Eaton County.
Unique educational setting combines frugality, choice.
"We’ve been around since 1879 and have generations that have been here forever," Diane McNeil, Oneida’s school board president, told Michigan Education Report. "We might be out in the country, but it has a real neighborhood feel to it. It’s very family-oriented." The school district, which usually serves about 20 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, is one-square mile.
"Two miles east is a home that used to be one-room school house, and two miles north is another one that up until a few years ago had been the township hall," McNeil said. "So I guess at one time there must have been other Oneida Township school districts."
McNeil said the school used to go up to eighth grade, but the board found that many students were leaving after fifth grade because of extracurricular activities such as band or athletics that larger middle schools offer.
"We participate in schools of choice, so sometimes our numbers can be as high as 21 or 22, especially if it’s a family and all the siblings want to come here," McNeil said. "And if any of the students who live in the actual district want to continue here until eighth grade, they certainly can."
Students who attend Oneida usually go on to either the Grand Ledge or Potterville school districts, or attend one of the Lansing-area independent schools, such as Lansing Catholic Central where McNeil’s children went to high school.
"The parents have a few options to consider when deciding where their child should continue their education," McNeil said.
Oneida’s teacher, Nancy Ewing, said all but one or two students each year are schools of choice participants.
"Proposal A was such a blessing for us," Ewing said. "Before, we were paying thousands of dollars to other school districts for our students to attend high school. Now, the money follows the student and that’s the way it should be."
Oneida’s budget is about $150,000 a year. From that, the school pays one teacher and one aide, as well as individual contracts with teachers who provide music, computers and art classes.
"Rarely do we ever rent (buses) for field trips," McNeil said. "Parents do the driving."
While the school board and parents help with a variety of custodial and maintenance chores at the school on a regular basis, the students also have assigned tasks at the end of each day.
"They put the chairs up on the desks, they sweep, they wash the chalkboard," McNeil said. "Everyone helps out."
When it comes time for larger projects, McNeil said the board tries to find someone with a price that is "friendly or reasonable."
"We make all the phone calls, buy all the supplies," McNeil said. "If something needs repaired, we get the estimates, or else we just go fix it ourselves."
Ewing said because so many families choose to enroll their children at Oneida, the district values the relationships with those families.
"Everyone is just so supportive," she said. "If I’m shoveling off the walk in the morning, one of the dads will volunteer to do it, so I can be with the kids."
One job the board did contract out for was a restoration project that helped return the school to a condition as close to its early years as possible. The wooden, flip-top desks and wooden chairs also are reminiscent of a 19th century one-room school.
"The walls had been painted and papered and paneled over the years," McNeil said. "We brought in a person who redoes Victorian homes and they got the floors and walls looking like it would have back when the school started."
When the board decided the school could benefit from more space, they decided not to expand the structure, which would have diminished its historical integrity, but instead added a small building that is now called the Resource Center. McNeil said it houses supplies, files and a computer lab.
"The computers used to be right in the classroom," she said. "And that can be pretty distracting for the other students who aren’t using them at the time."
The school day itself is as unique as the way the school is run. McNeil said the teacher writes each grade’s assignments on the board at the start of each day, and students work on those assignments while grade-specific sessions are held at the front of the room.
"We have an aide in the morning, and usually a high school co-op in the afternoon to help the students," McNeil said. "The teacher will have, say, fifth grade history or second grade math at a larger table with her, and the rest of the students do their work until they get called up."
McNeil said one benefit to this method that students enjoy is that there is rarely any homework.
"The teacher tells parents that if students are brining assignments home, they aren’t managing their time very well during the day," McNeil laughed.
Unlike many districts around Michigan that experience contract strife on a regular basis, Oneida has no such problem. The board and Ewing keep in constant contact, and each year brings a discussion of goals and objectives.
"We’re the only ones she has to report to," McNeil said. "It’s not like she has to go to 700 meetings." McNeil said board members evaluate Ewing’s year-end performance, then decide if a bonus is in order.
"We have to stay within our budget," McNeil said. "But everything is based on performance and economics. If she has something she thinks needs to be taken care of, all she has to do is ask."
Ewing said she enjoys the personal contact with the board.
"I may not make as much as teachers in big schools, but it all balances out," she said. "I also don’t have to put up with a lot of the hassles they do. We just sit down, talk things out and decide how to proceed."
Ewing, who attended Oneida as a child, began teaching at the school in 1978. It was her first job out of college.
"To teach in a school like this, you almost have to have attended one as a student," she said. "I think I’d get bored teaching just one grade."
Ewing said it took her a few years to develop the proper lesson plans, but now that runs smoothly, as does the transition from one year to the next.
"My kids know exactly what’s going to happen when they come back to school," Ewing said. "There’s no anxiety about what teacher they have, or who they don’t know. I know exactly where each child is from day one, so I don’t have to spend months evaluating them."