Between bites of BLTs and by the gaze of an old-fashioned portrait of George Washington, about 50 kids’ voices sang Happy Birthday in celebration of two sisters’ shared seventh birthday.

At some schools, 50 kids might represent a grade, or maybe even just a class. In Thornfield, located in an extremely rural and sparsely populated part of Missouri, that figure represents the entire kindergarten-through-eighth-grade student body.

I’ve been fascinated by rural schools – and post offices, and churches, and really any touchpoints of community in rural areas – for a long time. In the case of schools, I considered small, rural districts in the context as we think of one-room schools in years gone by.

What are schools with tiny student populations like? What unique challenges and opportunities do they offer in contrast to larger districts?

That fascination turned to action when I reached out and asked Melissa Campbell, Thornfield School’s leader and former student, if I could come and shadow for a day. She said yes.

Thornfield School principal Melissa Campbell stands with her arms crossed in a blue and white hallway. A tiger is painted on the right wall.
Melissa Campbell serves as principal and superintendent of Thornfield School. She first came to the school as a student; as an adult, she began as a bus driver before becoming a teacher, and later, the school’s leader. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

I knew I would learn a lot. One thing I wasn’t expecting, however, was seeing the success of the school before I even entered its doors: In the weeks before my visit, I learned that in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s annual performance reviews, Thornfield was tied for the state's top spot with 96.1%.

“I truly feel – and this may sound corny – but it’s those relationships,” Campbell told me of the secret sauce behind the school’s success. “We don’t have behavior issues; I mean, we don’t. You go in there and those kids are happy. They may be rowdy, but they know that teacher cares about them, and knows their name, and knows their favorite football team.

“If you connect with them, they’re going to want to learn and work for you.”

Traveling to Thornfield

Campbell shared those sentiments from her principal’s office inside Thornfield School, about a two-hour drive from my home in Springfield, the Ozarks’ largest city. The urban region quickly dissolved to hill-filled scenes; misty hills, shades of sunrise, and silhouetted barns soften the line separating past and present.

The community is located in Ozark County, Missouri, home to about 8,500 residents spread across 745 square miles of land area, per 2020 U.S. Census data. The county’s median income is $39,125, somewhat more than half of Missouri’s.

Thornfield is a tiny stop in that expanse. Today, it has little activity beyond a gathering-place gas station that doubles as a short-order cafe, a post office, churches, and a feed mill.

But then there’s the school, housed in a native-stone building with a marker of 1937 out front, that always caught my attention on trips through town. It technically says Thornfield High School, but upper classes haven’t been offered there for decades.

Thornfield School, in a small stone building, sits atop a hill in front of a blue sky. Three cars are parked in front of the building.
Thornfield School is located in Ozark County, Missouri. The core building on its campus was constructed of native stone in 1937. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

After I parked my car, Campbell met me at the door. She just got back from her morning bus route, one of two the school runs to pick up students. That role was actually what brought her to the school in 2004. She was a student at Thornfield herself before that.

“I was like, ‘What if I could drive a bus?’ I’d never driven a bus before, and I went and took the test, and started driving a bus. Then I went back to school,” she said. In 2007, when there was an opening, she began teaching at Thornfield.

“In 2018, I got this job – and I kept driving a bus,” she continued. “But you really can’t find anybody, and it’s a huge responsibility.”

We visited for a few minutes before she took me on a tour of the school, offering introductions with the kids as we popped into classes.

“So this is what we call the ‘big kid’ hallway,” Campbell told me as we walked past pieces of paper depicting the periodic table that hung on the wall. “Five, six, seven, eight.”

Considering the size of the school, many activities are collaborative. Kindergarten is the only grade that operates completely on its own. First and second grade are one class, as are third and fourth. The older kids – fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth – are taught solo as they switch among teachers for language arts, science and math, but also join together in other instances like homeroom.

“I go to Walmart, obviously, everybody goes to Walmart,” said Jana Lumb, a veteran teacher, of the big-box hub that does indeed draw many people in rural areas. It also offers a chance to connect with friends and family – and former students.

“It’s … neat to see some of the kids that I’ve had still come up – who are in high school and have graduated – and go, ‘Oh, Ms. Lumb, I miss you,’” she added. “They still know … that I’m a safe person; that it’s OK to come hug me.”

The “big kids” were in homeroom together when I settled into a seat at the back of the room and heard about their work and experience at the school.

“Well, I like it specifically because it’s a lot smaller and I’m not good with big crowds,” Lillie Morrison, an eighth grader who wants to be a writer, told me. “It’s a lot calmer here. Each teacher can focus – like, if someone’s struggling, the teacher can focus on each kid. A lot of big schools can’t do that.”

They had questions for me, too: About journalism; how I find story ideas, and how I began writing about the Ozarks. On a whiteboard, I see another written in red marker: “Why did you come to our small school?”

To me, the answer was simple: Because these slices of rural life are important. They are relevant to our world today. They are the stories of life.

Learning More During Class

I spent the morning moving between the older kids’ classes, shifting from homeroom to science, where sixth grade students learned about trace fossils with the aid of Play-Doh.

They took shells to make impressions in the colorful material while teacher Sarah Overcast shared more about their history. It’s a place where learning is often hands-on: Thanks to donations of edible dough from the town’s gas station and cafe, they also recently made pizza to learn about the Earth’s makeup.

“The dough was the inner core, and then the sauce was the outer core,” one student told me. “The cheese was the mantle and the pepperoni, if we put them on there, was the crust.”

Teacher Sarah Overcast directs two female students in a well-decorated classroom.
Teacher Sarah Overcast teaches sixth graders about fossils using Play-Doh. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

“I like the fact that they were able to do something hands-on, correlate it with what they were doing, and then to watch them actually talk about, ‘OK, what do we need to do first?’ procedure-wise,” added Overcast. “Then use rolling pins – oh my gosh, to watch them use the rolling pins. That was like, ‘Yeah, now you know what your mamas are going through.’”

There was an incubator in the corner of the room, filled with chicken eggs waiting to hatch.

“Because the development in the eggs is pretty unique. The entire process – it’s just something that’s very cool to look at,” Emilee Smith, a seventh grader, shared. “You can study the embryo whenever you just put a light up to the egg. You can kind of see the stages of the embryo whenever it grows.

“And whenever they hatch, they don’t look like you think. They’re not fluffy, they’re kind of like a dried rat. They don’t fluff up until like two days after.”

The project also showed collaboration. The eggs that are hoped to hatch were given by a local family; the incubator in which they develop was loaned by “Miss Bethany” Schneider, the school’s custodian, who loaned the equipment for the sake of her kids – all of them.

“It’s so small that we have a lot of pride in our community, and we love our school,” she shared with me. “When they ask, ‘Are these your kids?’

“I say, ‘These are the kids I made,’” as she spoke of her own children, “‘but they're all my kids.’”

Back to Basics

At lunchtime, the entire school gathered in the cafeteria, where the kids lined up to get those BLTs, potato wedges and cinnamon applesauce.

It’s another moment of generational connection as aide Tela Ware takes a tray from her mother – school cook Missy Reichert – and hands it through the window to her daughter.

“I do all the menu planning; all the ordering,” Reichert told me as she placed food on trays, noting that there are guidelines she works within. “You have a requirement of how much they have to have, and how much they have to have in a meal. It varies from age groups.”

In a way, perhaps that menu represents a fundamental element at Thornfield: Local control, and the ability within parameters to adapt the school to the needs and desires of the community.

An example of that is technology.

I have not spent much time in schools since I graduated from high school nearly 20 years ago, but from what I read, and from what I hear, technology has often become a central focus in many districts.

That is not the case in Thornfield, where during my visit laptops largely remained stacked in the corner.

“We are pretty old school. If it was up to me, we’d still have chalkboards and pencil and paper. We look at it (technology) as a supplement,” Campbell told me later, also noting that the school is one of few in the state to not have a website. Instead, they use a Facebook group to communicate with parents.

The lack of a website could change – it’s not based on principle as much as priority – but it perhaps ties to what are seen as overlying needs.

Beginning in first grade, all Thornfield students have their own Chromebooks. However, for students without internet at home, they might not be easily usable beyond the school anyway.

That reality presented a challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic, when rural districts were grappling with the idea of teaching students virtually. In Thornfield, virtual work just really wasn’t seen as an option.

Fog and barren trees cover rolling hills of Ozark County, Missouri.
Thornfield is located in rural Ozark County, Missouri. According to 2020 U.S. Census data, the county has about 8,500 residents over about 745 square miles. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

“When we surveyed our people, probably 90, 95% had internet access, but it might be on your phone,” Campbell said. “Then the kids would either have to have mom’s phone, or a hotspot. So we just didn’t. My household is one of them – we don’t have wi-fi.”

Yet that has not impacted the school’s standardized Missouri Assessment Program test scores, which helped them tie for the state’s top spot.

I reached out to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for some additional information about this ranking.

The score, I learned, is based on the number of points districts accrued according to performance and continuous improvement. The factors within those categories do vary slightly between K-8 and K-12 districts – the latter include focus on things relevant to high schoolers, including graduation rates – but they are ranked together.

“The local school district often serves as the heart of the community. Like any school, small districts can provide tremendous educational opportunities for students,” Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for DESE, wrote to me. “Due to their size, small schools sometimes have to be more creative by leveraging virtual programs or other regional collaborations, but quality instruction provided by great teachers is ultimately what matters the most.”

Perhaps that adaptability also ties to greater learning for kids. When it’s fun, and when kids sense teachers care, there’s greater ability to learn.

“It fits the MAP test, but you’ve got to base stuff on your kids, too,” Christy Cox, the school’s English and language arts teacher, shared about her search for a new curriculum for her students. “You figure out what they get – there is stuff they have to read that they don’t like, but they do it. But if you gear things to what they want, it’s easy. Easy peasy.”

As there are everywhere, however, there are challenges as an especially small school.

Given Thornfield’s limited staff, it’s impossible to offer the same extracurricular activities for students that some other schools might give. That size, too, can be challenging if there are personality conflicts, whether between students or staff members.

Thornfield has a nurse just one day a week. The district couldn’t find an art and music teacher to replace one who decided he didn’t want to make the commute. Instead, aide Tela Ware fills in. (Yes, she was also serving lunch. Additionally, when I arrived, she was leading the older kids in a game of volleyball during gym.)

The staff size makes the ability to wear many hats of critical importance. Another example is through Campbell’s continued bus driving – and that of her husband, Laryme Campbell, who is the school’s math teacher. He also leads physical education and helps maintain the buses.

To serve students with special needs, much of the day-to-day work falls on the classroom teachers. However, Thornfield is part of a cooperative that sends a Special Education educator to the school part-time to manage specialized requirements, such as writing Individual Education Plans as required by Missouri state law for students with disabilities.

Leaving Thornfield

The end of school at Thornfield comes in two ways for students.

There’s the end of the day, when students walk out from the school and load onto two buses.

The ride can be a considerable one for some kids, taking the bus over low-water crossings, cattle guards and down winding gravel roads. Campbell leaves the school about 6:40 a.m. on her pickup route, and finishes getting the students back home about 4:30 p.m. The longest ride for a student is about an hour each way.

Thornfield School building seen through the windows of a school bus.
Melissa Campbell returns to the school on her afternoon bus route. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

That length, however, may get longer for some kids after they graduate from eighth grade. Since Thornfield doesn’t offer high school instruction, students may choose to attend one of the surrounding districts.

Some of those options require students to secure their own transportation, but Thornfield does offer a bus to the closest option: Lutie High School, 16 miles away. That bus is driven by the school secretary, who leaves her post early each afternoon to go get the school’s former kids.

Compared to Thornfield, the closest schools are large. And no distance keeps from disrupting the bonds students develop at Thornfield in which they may be with a handful of students for the first nine years of school – but who may not attend school together after eighth grade.

“We’ve told the kids these are your lifelong friends,” said Campbell.

Wrapping Things Up

But on the day of my visit, it’s not the end of the day for Campbell, or even a chunk of the kids at the school. At 5 p.m., it’s time for a basketball scrimmage. It’s the only official sport offered at Thornfield; student numbers dropped too low to support both girls and boys teams, so they play together.

Originally, the plan was to play another local school. But when that game got canceled, Campbell opted instead to have a game in which players from the school are split into teams and play each other. Another important note: It would be free to attend.

“I'm not going to charge admission to get in,” Campbell said. “Sometimes, if you have a very big family day game of play and because of (the cost).”

LaTasha Cook leads five young girls as Thornfield's cheerleaders in the corner of the school gym.
LaTasha Cook leads Thornfield’s cheerleaders at a home scrimmage game in February 2024. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

As the kids played, both teams on behalf of the Tigers in blue and yellow jerseys, tiny cheerleaders supported their fellow students with choreographed moves and pom-pom frenzy. They’re there thanks to LaTasha Cook, a mom who volunteered to coach the team (and is the force behind the school’s beloved annual Valentine’s Day dance).

“I went to a K-8 school in southeast Missouri. I wanted there to be some consistency,” said Cook of what she wanted to offer for students. “Something for them to look forward to.”

Balls are shot, causing cheers from the crowd and flurries of tiny pom-poms. The cheers are for the moment, but also, it feels like they could be for something far more lasting.

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