The aged maple floorboards are scuffed and creaky, worn thin and smooth by thousands of youngsters over the years in the Hancock Village School. Banks of tall windows, a dozen panes over a dozen panes each, flood a pair of classrooms with sunlight.
A 19th-century image of Abraham Lincoln hangs on a back wall in one classroom where studies began in 1801, 60 years before he took office.
That history comes to a close on Thursday. Fewer kids and rising costs prompted townsfolk this year to vote to close the elementary school and instead pay tuition to send their roughly 20 children to neighboring schools.
"What you've lost is your heart of your town, and you've lost a history that is pretty hard to match in our nation," says lead teacher and principal Mary Sue Crowley.
It's a dilemma facing rural communities around the country. Just last week, a one-room schoolhouse with two students in Shirley, Maine, shut its doors. An elementary school with 14 students in Hamill, S.D., that faced possible closure has managed to stay open another year despite losing a teacher.
"It is pandemic," says Marty Strange of Randolph, policy director of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust in Arlington, Va. "The factors are fiscal — where there simply isn't enough money to keep the schools going — especially where there's declining enrollment — the cost per pupil gets very high."
As the year's end approaches, the kids of Hancock Village School know what they're losing.
Three fourth-graders and 10 third-graders in one classroom draw pictures of their schoolhouse, a white clapboard building with a bell on top that still clangs to call youngsters in from the schoolyard. They work on modern desks and colorful tables beneath antique pendant lights installed in the early days of electricity.
As they learn about art styles, Ella Beattie, 8, chooses surreal, drawing a blue school with a purple roof and red sky.
"My picture says I love this school because it was open a lot of times and my grandmother went to this school," she says.
"It feels good going to this school and it's gonna close and I'm probably going to feel really sad," she says.
Next year, most students will go up the two-lane Route 100 to Rochester, about four miles away; some may travel the 16 miles north to Warren.
Wednesday night, they'll put on a performance for the community — "So Long, Farewell" — about the school's place in history. Their timeline begins with 1801, the first year of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. They'll sing and square dance.
For show-and-tell on the last day, Thursday, second-grader Travis Needham plans to bring in his new bird, a ring-necked dove.
Barbara Harvey, 67, taught at the school for 21 years, from 1973 to 1994. She remembers cross-country skiing with the kids in the field out back and putting on performances at the town hall. Harvey liked the family atmosphere of the multigrade classroom.
"The children cared about each other and I was able to give them individual attention by having them for three years," she says.
But with more demands — and the same expectations as larger schools have — a small school becomes costlier to run.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, for example, Hancock was required to have a research-based math program and had to hire a part-time math teacher for the second grade.
"The expectations are all great expectations but unfortunately they don't lend (themselves) as well to a one-room school, they don't lend as well to multigrades," Crowley says.
The decision to close the school has been divisive in Hancock, a town dominated by national forest land. In 2007, it lost Vermont Plywood, a mill that was the town's only major employer. Many in town now travel outside Hancock to work and more than half are retired, says Jim Leno, 65, selectboard chairman.
"The costs just keep escalating — not only the costs but the level of education," Leno says.
End of an era
The minority faction — parents, teachers and longtime residents whose families have gone to the school for generations — hate to see the school close.
"It's the nucleus of the community," says Eula Bannister, 83, a former teacher in neighboring Granville, who lives next door to the Hancock school. She felt sick when she heard the results of a revote called by a disappointed parent. The numbers were resounding — 65 to 37 — and the turnout historic.
Geraldine Twitchell, 57, can rattle off a list of relatives who went to the school, starting with her father in the 1920s, whose family moved to town to build the plywood mill. She remembers getting a good education there; she moved back to Hancock from a nearby town so that her son could attend.
Without the mill, and now the school, there's little reason for young families to move to town, Twitchell says.
"It's like the end of an era and end of a time when things were working well," she says.
"I realize that money-wise you just — it's just too much for a little town — a little school to do," she says wistfully.
Loss to the community
In her kitchen in the back of the school, cook Tracy Englehardt prepares turkey pot pie with cranberry sauce, one of the kids' favorites. Almost all are on a free- or reduced-meal program; they file through and pick up their lunch on trays, returning to their desks to eat. In days gone by, students roasted potatoes on the school's woodstoves; others went home for lunch.
Englehardt, who runs the homework club and supplies Band-Aids and cough drops, knows the kids' likes and dislikes: Peanut butter and jelly is a favorite. Shepherd's pie also goes fast. For breakfast this morning, students loaded up on French toast and fruit, telling Englehardt how many pieces they wanted and choosing apple or pear slices — or both.
"Can we do that?" one boy marvels.
"On occasion," she allows.
After three days of rain, the kids are eager for recess and they tear around the yard and swing behind the school in view of a mountain ridge line.
When time's up, teacher Amy Braun, 41, pulls the bell rope in the school entranceway. With each pull, the bell's peal resonates down Route 100, among the village houses and yards.
"We did research about three years ago and discovered across the entire country, this was by far the oldest operating two-room schoolhouse in the country, open since Thomas Jefferson was president," Braun says.
She's out of a job, but she's more concerned about the loss to the community.
"For me, it's the history of this building that is really the most important thing that we need to honor and remember," she says. "All these generations of people that went through this building, that educated lots of people."
The town has struggled with dwindling enrollment. Five years ago, the school merged with neighboring Granville (pop. 303), sending students from both towns to Hancock for kindergarten through fourth grade and Granville's one-room schoolhouse for fifth and sixth. That worked for a while but the number of students has dropped since. At the annual town meeting in March, Hancock voters dissolved the contract with Granville and then voted to close the school, saving about $130,000 a year. Granville's school, which served just 11 students, also will close.
Crowley, who will work as a special educator for other schools, doesn't think Hancock will save money in the long run by sending its 20 or so students to other schools next year, at a cost of $160,000. She thinks the town is making a big mistake.
"This town really has the school as its centerpost; it's what is its heart. This is where they come for the potlucks with their kids, this is where you can bring your kids after school and play with the others kids that are on the swing set. This is also a place that's been open for 208 years. That's really an amazing run," she says.