Small school has served students in rural Russellville for several decades

At the end of 1948, there were 77 schools in Moniteau County, according to the 2000 edition of the “Moniteau County Missouri History” book. Many of these schools were represented as a small, one-class school with a single teacher. As the website notes, Moniteau County now has a total of six public school districts.

“Improved roads; newer, larger and more efficient buses; funding challenges and the drive to consolidate schools… contributed to the demise of the once popular one-room school, ”noted an article on the Missouri State University website.

“One-room schools across the United States weren’t just for teaching children to read, write, and count; but as a community gathering place for business meetings and social events, ”the university said.

Few schools have survived the decades, with most of them shattered relics of their former glory. Regardless, many of these buildings continue to hold fond memories for the now older adults who once frequented them.

This long list includes the Surprise School, once located between Russellville and McGirk on K route. For a number of years, it was the building where many local students received their basic instruction in a range of academic subjects.

“Since there weren’t enough kids to open the nearest one-room school, I attended grade one and grade two in California,” said Norris Siebert, who grew up north of Russellville. on Rockhouse Road. “But, from the third year in 1942, the authorities decided to reopen the local one-class school.”

The school had burned down years earlier, Siebert said. It was rebuilt so quickly that it surprised many locals, which led to the decision to name it “Surprise School”. In the years that followed, the school welcomed students from grades 1 to 8.

Like many of the students next to Siebert, there was no transportation system in place and he had to make the daily commute to school.

“Even our teacher, Ellen Messerli, walked to school, but I think my distance was the furthest – 2¼ miles,” Siebert said. “Sometimes a car would pass and drive me, but that didn’t happen often. “

For eight years, Don Wyss attended the one-room Enon school. He pointed out that since there was only one teacher, an alternating grade level was used so that the teacher did not have to teach every year every year.

“It was my responsibility to be a quality alternator,” noted Wyss. “After the fourth year, I went to the sixth year, I went back to the fifth year, I went to the eighth year, and then I went back to the seventh year, where I graduated. This system now looks strange, but it actually wasn’t that bad.

Wyss was approached by Oscar Siebert and Guilford Heidbreder in 1947, both board members of the reopened Surprise School. They looked for a new teacher and Wyss, 18 with just 20 hours of college, was offered the job. He attended summer school at Warrensburg College and attended a 10-week school education workshop.

Beginning his teaching career in the fall of 1947, Wyss said: “At first I wondered why someone would teach in school for a living, but I soon came to love him.

He added: “The students were very capable and at the time I had no idea this would lead to a long career in education.”

One of the landmark experiences, Wyss recalls, came when a local woman sponsored a Jewish family that had been buried in a concentration camp in Germany during World War II. The family consisted of a young boy and a girl, both of whom attended the nearby Surprise School.

“The children spoke German but not English… and I didn’t speak German,” Wyss recalls. “I asked myself, ‘How the hell can I teach them? But I found out that they could do arithmetic very well, and I did a lot of object lessons, like holding a pencil and saying, “This is a pencil,” while having them repeat after me. “

In their freshman year, the eighth-graders class attended graduation ceremonies near California, where Wyss was invited by the County Superintendent of Schools to introduce the State Department speaker. education.

“I started to introduce the speaker and because I looked so young he thought I was one of the eighth grade graduates! Said Wyss. “I said, ‘No, I’m the teacher! “”

Wyss made the daily commute to Surprise School from his home in Enon, earning a monthly salary of $ 175. Every now and then the road to school got so muddy and poor that he parked his car at Oscar Siebert’s, who then transported him with several students to school on a cart pulled by his tractor.

In the spring of 1949, Norris Siebert was one of three eighth grade students from Surprise School. Reflecting on his upbringing, he noted, “I’m sure we were learning high school subjects, because when I got to Russellville High School (in the fall of 1949) it felt like a review of what I had already learned.

Don Wyss was a teacher for three years at Surprise School, saying the educational institution closed due to the consolidation of rural schools in 1950. He then spent more than four decades in education, but acknowledges that his stay in a one-class school provided him with the most important lessons of his career.

“Experience is the best teacher, and I probably learned more at the Surprise School about teaching and human nature than in any college course.”

He added, “I really believed in the structure of the rural school, and it was a different education in terms of you learning by doing… learning to make the most of the available resources.

Jeremy P. Ämick writes a series of historical articles in honor of Missouri’s bicentennial.

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