When pioneers first settled in Dakota Territory, or North Dakota, they took care of important matters right away. They often set the plow into the soil the day they arrived on their claim. Then, they built some sort of shelter to keep the family safe and warm.
Once the family’s needs were met, settlers began to organize the community. In some communities, neighbors with a shared faith organized a church. In other communities, families with children got together to locate a public school and hire a teacher. Often the church building or the school building served the other purpose as well.
Rural and small town schools usually provided education to the 8th grade. Few small towns could afford to build a high school until school districts began to consolidate in the 1910s and 1920s. Consolidation brought enough school districts together to provide sufficient numbers of students and adequate funding for secondary studies. Before a local high school was available, some students attended one of the high schools affiliated with the state’s colleges. The state paid the students’ tuition of $2.50 per month at these schools. The students or their families had to come up with arrangements for boarding in town.
The first state laws governing schools required schools to meet for 12 weeks each year. School boards did not schedule classes during planting or harvest when children were needed in the fields. Some schools did not meet during the coldest months of winter. However, as farms and communities grew, school terms lengthened to about five or six months per year in most rural communities. By 1917, state law required a seven month school term, but some schools still did not meet that requirement.
Public schools were funded through local taxes. An elected school board determined the dates of the school term and hired, paid, and fired (if necessary) the teachers. A teacher’s pay often included board (food) and room with the family of one of her students. Rarely did these young, single, teachers have a room to themselves. They shared a room and often the bed with one or more of their students.
Country schools often had only one classroom. A large coal or wood burning stove stood to one side of the classroom. Blackboards usually covered two walls. Windows were clustered on the south side to maximize both light and warmth from the sun. Most schools had a single outhouse, though some did not have even that.
The teachers’ first job each morning was to start a fire in the stove. Her (or his) last chore each day was to clean the school room and the outhouse. Many teachers hated both chores and did them poorly, if at all.
Though 12 weeks of study seems like a very short period of time, the course of study was very thorough. A competent teacher separated the students by learning levels. While she (or he) worked with one group of students, the other students had reading or writing assignments to complete. Sometimes the oldest students helped the younger ones learn their lessons.
In settlers’ communities, the school was organized and managed by the tax-paying residents. On Indian reservations, however, the schools were established by missionaries at first, and later by federal agents. Though American Indian parents were anxious to see their children educated for the life they would live as adults, the parents had so little control over the schools and the courses of studies that they distrusted the schools and the teachers. Indeed, many young American Indian students were separated from their parents and taken to distant schools where they might stay for years before seeing their families again.
The people of the United States valued education and had provided for the support of schools since Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Each township retained one section (640 acres) for the support of the schools. Thomas Jefferson, whose ideas about the distribution of land led to the Northwest Ordinance, believed that democracy was only possible if the citizens were educated. Many of the immigrants who came from Europe to North Dakota also valued education for their children. In the time period up to 1920, most North Dakota children attended school through 6th grade and many continued through 8th grade.
In some communities, public school studies were supplemented by parochial (church-based) school for a few weeks a year usually in the middle of summer. Parochial schools focused on religious studies that were taught in the language of the children’s parents’ home country. Norwegian Lutherans were particularly committed to sponsoring parochial schools for a few weeks each summer.
Why is this important? Schools were one of the first organized institutions in the small rural communities and towns that sprouted all over Dakota Territory and North Dakota between 1870 and 1920. At school programs and school board meetings, neighbors met one another and began to feel part of a community. The school not only served as a place to educate the students, but also as a community center. Many of the settlers saw in Dakota a chance to provide a good future for their children. Free education for every child was an important to securing a good future for the children.
Schools are fundamental to democracy in the United States. Participating in school board elections and issues introduced direct democracy to many immigrants. After 1883, women could vote on school issues and serve on school boards or as school superintendent. School suffrage gave women their first legal opportunity to vote in Dakota Territory. In school, students learned about their civil rights and responsibilities. Students graduated from their 8th grade studies well prepared for their adult role as citizens.