Reading, riding and ‘rithmatic
In western South Dakota 100 years ago, riding to school was commonplace, less so nowadays. Though for 13 years, most of the students at Hereford Country School in the Meade School District have saddled up and ridden up to seven miles to school.
Shelane Graham grew up in and attended school at Hereford. She, along with her five sisters and their cousins, the Baker girls, frequently rode to school, pulling their saddles upon arrival and watering their steeds at lunch break. Their dad was always happy when they rode home after school, she said, because they were tacked up and ready to go to work on the ranch, of which Shelane is fifth generation.
When Shelane’s oldest, Jade, and her cousin Roxie Baker-Thompson’s son, Rowdy, were entering kindergarten 13 years ago, they decided to establish the tradition of riding to their school. It has since expanded to nearly every student, 15 in the entire school this year, catching their horses from dewy pastures for their first day of school. Jeff and Shelane Graham’s middle child, Sanden, is in high school at Sturgis with his older brother Jade, and their sister Sage will ride to school for the last time next year.
Students in grades kindergarten through eight were joined by some parents, grandparents, a teacher, Terri Barry, who grew up in Piedmont, South Dakota, and has taught at country schools for more than 30 years, and a teacher’s aid, Carrie Howie. Shelane is the traveling librarian and rides to school as well. West River Electric was awaiting students with “enough donuts to feed an army, and orange juice,” Shelane said. “It’s never happened before, but the kids loved that. It’s pretty awesome of them to do that.” Rural schools in the area are part of West River Electric and a portion of their member services involves meeting people in their service area, Marcy Arneson, a member of the WRE board, said.
Several of JJ and Lindsey Elshere’s five sons were among the cavvy riding to school. Thayne, seventh grade, and Trik, third grade, rode to school while being supervised by little brother Tel, who is in second grade. They also have a son in high school and another not yet school aged.
“I went to a country school and so did my husband. In a country school, you might have three or four kids per class, and one teacher may have six different grades,” Lindsey said. “The kids get so much better one-on-one time. Our rural school teachers are absolutely amazing; they take so much on. They have kindergarten through eighth to teach. In a lot of public schools, kids have to take their work home because there are too many kids to help. If we had to, we would drive 30 miles one way to a rural school versus taking the five miles to a public school. The teachers ranch and understand that kind of lifestyle. It’s a great place to raise our kids.”
Most students start their ride from Elshere’s house four miles from school, though Gary and Jessica Deering’s sons Porter, fifth grade, and Shea, third grade, start from home, about three miles further down the road. Their youngest Dawson, first grade, rode in the car with Jessica, while she took photos of the morning’s events.
“The ride went good. The kids are normally pretty excited for it. It’s fun; it’s alway kind of a rush that first morning. It’s always a good time,” said Jessica, who grew up in Philadelphia with a childhood filled with large classrooms and bus rides.
“I was skeptical about what education my children would get, but honestly it is awesome,” she said. “They get a lot more personal time, and the teachers rely on older kids to help younger kids sometimes, so they get a different kind of education. Last year, my boys were all in the same classroom. This year, my oldest is in the other classroom. I have heard from a lot of people that when it is time to go to high school, they’re pretty prepared because they also have to work on their own sometimes; they have to be self motivators, self-starters, to get their work done. I think they learn that responsibility early on.”
The school has expanded to include another building as a second classroom in addition to the old school house that has been standing for many years. Barry teaches kindergarten through fourth grades in one building, and Carrie Severin teaches fifth through eight grades in the other. Howie and Arlene Ketelson are paraprofessionals for the rural school.
“When I was there, we were all in one classroom. We’ve grown so much, they brought us a double wide,” Shelane said. “It’s really a lost art of teaching. The teachers in town will say, ‘You only have six kids in one grade?’ and they really have four or five grades. They’re the principal, they’re the nurse, they shovel the snow off the stairs, they’re the janitor. A lot of it is the kids really have to be independent learners, while the teacher is having class with sixth graders, and the seventh graders work on math or something.”
Many parents of Hereford students appreciate the rural school that opens its doors to mounted students come fall of every year.
“I really hope this tradition keeps going so one day my grandkids can participate in it too,” Shelane said. “So many rural schools are being closed, but Hereford is a thriving community. We are thankful Meade School District keeps Hereford Country School open so we can enjoy our beautiful tradition of riding horses on the first day as the school really keeps our community alive.”