When Gov. Steve Bullock saw McCormick School for the first time on Friday, he saw it much as it looked on its first day 104 years ago.
From the outside, McCormick School appears to be from another time. A one-room schoolhouse, McCormick School is painted barn red, trimmed in white and complete with a belfry that sounds the alarm signaling the start of classes and the end of recess.
A sign outside the wood-frame school, which is situated along Old U.S. Route 2 but a bell’s echo from the Idaho border, proudly proclaims its founding in 1909. Sitting back, away from this now less-traveled highway, McCormick School is exactly the kind of living history a tourist might photograph before hurriedly resuming their travels.
Yet while from the outside, McCormick School appears to be no less than a holdover of the Americana of illustrator Norman Rockwell, that is where the school’s early 20th century image ends.
Inside the school, on the east end of the open room that houses the fourth- through eighth-graders, there is a wall of computers positioned along four stations that beckon the young to learn. And when the computer stations are occupied, each of the 24 students has the option of using a personally assigned Google Nexus tablet.
“We got a technology grant to buy the Nexus tablets,” explained School Board President Terry Holmes, who graduated from McCormick 52 years ago.
This is the McCormick School of today that Bullock witnessed Friday.
TWO WEEKS AGO, Bullock signed Senate Bill 175 and other legislation that will further fund Montana schools, just like McCormick and those of Libby and Troy. Coincidentally, that signing came just one day before a mill-levy vote in Libby also sought to further fund schools. At McCormick, the mill levy is among the lowest in the state.
But that is not why Bullock came to an early graduation ceremony at McCormick School. In fact, Bullock didn’t even mention the funding bills in his main comments, it wasn’t until prodded later that he discussed the legislation.
“The students invited the governor,” said Hoisington, who also teaches fourth through eighth grades.
She said the five graduating eighth-grade students — Elijah Price, Salvador Rodriguez, Karla Horton, Coral Tucker and Denzel Tucker — initially wrote individual letters inviting the governor, but later decided they would take parts of all five letters and draft a single invitation.
That decision turned out to be a good one, with Bullock accepting.
He began his address to students by sharing a little about the days of his youth, piloting a tour boat on the Missouri River. Then, he offered three points of advice.
“First, I want you to figure out who the real heroes are,” Bullock said. “They could be your teacher, your pastor, or that special person who got you where you are.”
Bullock stressed that the students’ heroes of their youth may not be the heroes of their adult lives.
“Find out what gives you purpose,” Bullock said. “Volunteering is one way that you can learn about the people you are.”
Next Bullock told the young graduates to remember their roots.
“Learn the lesson of what your home and hometown have to offer. I had a friend who said after graduating that happiness would be seeing Helena in his rear-view mirror. … In Montana, we know of its beauty. We know how to find beauty even when it’s 30 below zero, if you just know where to look. I’ve been all over this country and lived in several states. I always knew Montana was where I wanted to raise my kids.”
Lastly, Bullock, spoke frankly and symbolically.
“Finally, I want you to remember to wear your seat belt. The next few years will be a bumpy ride, so I want you to be careful. I want you to wear your safety belts. Figuratively, and I want you to wear your seat belts, and yes, I really do want you to wear your seat belt, too.”
Bullock’s message was received with enthusiasm by the students, each of them thanking Bullock for attending their graduation.
ALL FIVE graduating eighth-graders now live in Idaho, although not all of them started there. Rodriguez is from Panama; Horton was born in Guatemala; and Denzel Tucker was born in Sierra Leone. The other students, Coral Tucker and Price, are native Idahoans.
McCormick School has recently seen a surge in students from Idaho after the closing of the Evergreen Elementary School in Moyie Springs, Idaho, three years ago. Now, 13 of the school’s 24 students are from Idaho.
No matter where they are from, though, parents of McCormick School students have only positive things to say. Among them is school board member Aimee Jones, who has two children in the school.
“This school is just amazing. I think it’s very similar to a Montessori school,” Jones said. “We have great teachers who allow our children the freedom to learn. My daughter is in the fourth grade, so she’s in the upper-age class, and she is getting so much out of this by being with the older students all day long. She’s just like a little sponge absorbing everything she can.”
Kathleen Price, whose youngest child — son Elijah — was among the graduates and whose eldest — daughter Claire — teaches music and Spanish at the school, had high praise for McCormick.
“I just think this is the best one-room schoolhouse in the nation,” Price said.
The school had just four students 12 years ago when Shelly Hoisington thought her four home-schooled children could benefit from interaction with other students. Hoisington, who is now the McCormick’s supervisory teacher, has seen enrollment grow at the school nearly every year since.
“It was a good move for my children,” Hoisington said.
Lincoln County Schools Superintendent Ron Higgins, who attended the graduation ceremony, noted how the school has grown under Hoisington, K-through third-grade teacher Nikki Eide, and Kindergarten aide Betty Mack.
“I guess it was 1999 when it was down to just four students. We didn’t know whether we were going to make it or not,” Higgins said. “The success you’re seeing now has a lot to do with the teachers. (The teachers) have made this school a great place of learning and not just a place to drop kids off.”