Albany County, Wyo., may be the largest school district in the continental United States. The district is large not because of the number of students, but because it encompasses 4,374 square miles. Albany County also has more rural schools than most districts. This year four of those schools have only one student.
There are 13 distant rural schools in the north end of the county and five closer rural schools. The distant schools are 50 and 125 miles from Laramie, and some do not have a telephone. These schools keep in contact via two-way radios.
In one case, the quaint one-room schoolhouse has given way to a modern trailer, in which the teacher lives in one end and teaches in the other half. This year Cozy Hollow School has only one student, as do River Bridge, Palmer Canyon, and Indian Guide.
The Bosler School was built in 1937. It is one of the nearer rural schools, only 20 miles north of Laramie. Economic fluctuations in the railroad industry have long since left the town virtually deserted, but on election day, 1980, two "votamatics" were set up in the basement, and Bosler's 14 students were having a bake sale. All items sold for 10 cents.
Mrs. Clyde Bresnahan, the janitor, says, "There's no water here. Only the rugged few who live here take the time to haul it." She and her husband have worked for 20 years at the Bosler School, and she has a unique method for keeping it clean. She tells the children that the building has a personality.
"You look around this building. Visitors can tell who lives here. Are there marks on the walls? Are there chairs torn up? No! Mrs. Bosler tells on us. She knows if I don't sweep the floor. I'm proud of our kids because we teach them to be good citizens. It's on a one- to-one basis."
Rob Young, in his first year of teaching at the Bosler School, echoes those same feelings. "With seven students, it's a lot easier to individualize your work and to help students with problems they are having."
Fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders have a definite disadvantage because of a lack of social interaction, but isolated ranch families want to have their children attend school close to home. Mr. Young adds, "All of the support services are excellent. If you need something and it's valid, there's no problem in getting it."
Country schools serve as community centers -- a role they have played since the settlement of the West. On election day at Bosler, hot beverages are served downstairs and assorted ranchers drift in, cast their ballots, and return to their pickup trucks. Ben Smith, 84, came in to vote and when asked his preference among the candidates, he replied, "I voted Democratic until after the First World War."
One of Mrs. Edith clymer's eight pupils describes what it is like to go to a one-teacher school. Sixth-grader Kyle Riley says about sports, "There's not enough for a real rootin' game, but we divide up anyway."
Because the Little Laramie Valley School was consolidated from three other schools and playground equipment was moved in, each child has his own swing and teeter -- totter. The modern -- style brick building opened in 1963, and Mrs. Clymer says, "I opened her up, and I hope I don't close her down." Declining enrollments, however, are taking their toll, and next year there may be only four primary students.
Downstairs in the gymnasium, lunch is served, and Mrs. Clymer tells how she started teaching in 1938, in a lean-to attached to a log cabin. She had an orange crate for a book cupboard, an old table for her desk, a desk for her one student, and a pot-bellied stove. She received $560 for teaching eight months.
In those days each ranch had its own teacher, and Mrs. Margaret Gladdis, one of the election officials, remembers when she received $25 a month for boarding the teacher who became part of the family. She says, "It was just the only way you could do when you were snowed in for a month. Each teacher was different. One girl taught the boys how to use a rifle and how to fish. Maybe the next teacher would be a literary teacher and teach them all about stories in books. Our kids received quite a general education."
Snow is still a factor with Albany County schools. Wyoming winters can send blizzards that block roads, stop travelers, and break lines of communication for days on end.
The district bookmobile is a four-wheel- drive van, and Mrs. Clymer always has food stored at the school in case of an emergency. Last year she had to stay two nights.
At the Harmony School 20 miles west of Laramie, election official Shirley Lilley explains that children go to country school as long as they can, but when those students are ready for junior high and senior high in town, parents have to maintain two homes. The harsh winter weather dictates forced family separation.
For seven years, Mrs. Lilley would leave the ranch each week to stay in town with her children. She says, "I didn't like being away from home. Every Monday morning I'd be a terrible grouch. Father was home batching. I'd get home Friday evening and have to start baking and cooking for the next week ahead. You live out of a box -- one box for the ranch and one box for the trailer in town."
Mrs. Lilley's story is a common one in rural Wyoming, where parents are awarded "isolation pay" from the district to help compensate for maintaining two homes. Teachers are also isolated. Last year at one of the north schools in Albany County, from Thanksgiving to early May the road was buried under snow. Only four-wheel-drive vehicles could gain access.
"North county" teachers try to get together once a week to share food and fellowship, and as long as the roads are clear they may drive 90 miles one way for dinner. Such meals are important to discuss classroom activities and to plan class parties. Typically they have get-togethers for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and the end-of-the-year picnic. With only one student in some schools, each group party is a major event.