History in Focus: The early schools of Moffat County
The state of public education is a hot-button topic. Schools are viewed as a reflection of our society. Underneath seething criticism is the perception we’ve lost our way, and in an earlier era, our schools, teachers and students were different… and better. Looking into the newspaper archives of early Moffat County a few articles caught my eye that challenges this nostalgic view of the past.
School attendance was — and still is — a difficult problem. In the Steamboat Pilot of Oct. 1, 1913, Moffat County’s first school superintendent, George L. Bushyager, reported to the state superintendent that of 540 school age children between the ages of 6 to 21, only 343 were actually enrolled in the schools spread across the county! “The report shows that truancy laws are not being enforced or that many are so situated that it is impossible for them to attend school.” But even in Craig, with a total of 179 school age children, average daily attendance was only 123.5, an abysmal attendance rate of 69 percent. Based on the Colorado Department of Education website, attendance for Moffat County Schools in 2014-15 was 91.9 percent.
The Common Core curriculum and standardized testing craze is perceived as a recent phenomena. However, the June 14, 1916 edition of the Craig Empire details the adoption of a common state curriculum for agriculture classes, and “the questions used in the final eighth grade examination this spring have been sent out from the state superintendent’s office and are uniform throughout the state for the first time.”
Even more interesting was, “Score cards for grading the efficiency and classification of the schools, have been posted in the various schools of the county and are proving to be a stimulus toward improvement.” Early on, as the Craig Empire mentioned, the community was concerned their children received similar opportunities as kids from “larger schools and older counties.”
Apparently, the movement to create standardized curriculum, compare scores and categorize kids and schools is nothing new. It’s an idea from the industrial age, but our human tendency to create easy labels and categories is a difficult habit to break; and it’s made easier by the computing power of the “information” age.
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Interestingly, responsibility for test results rested squarely on the shoulders of students by publishing the scores of the yearly eighth grade examination. On June 12, 1913 the Moffat County Courier reported Lucille Haubrich earned the highest overall score of 95 5/9, just ahead of Minnie Eberle who scored a 95. Clara Downs, Dora Camp, Mabel Yost and Virginia Henning all posted average scores above 90. Individual results for reading, orthography, penmanship, history, geography, physiology, grammar and civil government were also listed. Would 21st century “helicopter” parents support such a public ranking of their children as a form of motivation?
In the fall of 1918, the world-wide Spanish Influenza epidemic spread deep into remote and rural Moffat County. Church services were canceled, schools and pool halls closed, and the Red Cross created a quarantined infirmary in the Craig schoolhouse. By Nov. 20, 1918 the Craig Empire reported the worst had passed. The last convalescent was released, and “the school building has been thoroughly fumigated.” As an extra precaution, schools were not reopened until Dec. 2.
Brand new Moffat County Superintendent, Laura K Canon, appealed to parents to extend the school year in the Jan. 15, 1919 Craig Empire. “Now, parents, think twice before you take your children from school this spring. Would the month’s work the children do materially increase your annual income? It is very doubtful it would. On the other hand, the month your son or daughter is obliged to lose may necessitate taking the entire year’s work over again.” Most families chose to extend school into late June than face the prospect of repeating a year of schooling.
Early Moffat County schools faced huge challenges, some similar to those we face today. These small slivers of news offer us a chance to examine our perceptions of history, and whether or not the schools of our early history were truly better than today.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School.James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School.James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School.
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