What Education Could Be

Imagine that you are a student. Fifth grade. You arrive at school and eat your breakfast with your classmates and your teacher. You know all of them, because it is a small school and you know everyone. Your teacher asks about your pets, your family, your hobbies because it’s a small class and your teacher knows you too.

You and your classmates get into the bus- except, it isn’t actually a bus. It’s technically a class-3 school bus, which means it’s a van. It’s cozy, has seat belts, and it’s easy to talk to the people around you.

Your teacher asks you if you know why pine trees shape their leaves like needles. And you listen, and you ask questions. Learning is a conversation, things pointed out as you drive by or when you stop to look at something more closely. Your teacher welcomes your questions and encourages your curiosity. Sometimes the answer to your question is known and sometimes it goes on the list of things to research later. The geological history of the area is written in the stones and in the shape of the mountains and now that you know what to look for, you can see it.

You see ecosystems, in a pond, in a forest, in a meadow, and even on the moss covered rocks. You take samples of water and look at them under microscopes (the kind that use mirrors for light and require no electricity). You can see the stages of ecological succession; You can see the pioneer species that move in on bare stone, a pond that will one day become meadow, and a meadow that will one day become a forest. The future of the landscape is there and you can see it now.

You see human history, too. Old fire lookouts, and the places that the roads once were, when they were traveled by wagons. You see dynamite scarring that came when roads were built, and you pass stump cultures from Christmas tree farming.

You eat lunch back at school and your afternoon teacher joins you. Your afternoon is a vocational class. This trimester it’s Building Trades, and you are learning the basics of carpentry, plumbing, wiring and masonry. Last trimester was Culinary Arts and next will be Engineering.

This could be Trego School. This is a glimpse of the future we want for the children of our community. We want them to have opportunity to learn how to do things, to ask questions, and to reach their potential as confident, capable adults.

Help us build the future. Do you have a skill or a profession that would benefit the children of our community? Consider putting in an application at Trego School and applying for a Class-4 (vocational) teaching license.


On Graduation Day

This article is the board chairman’s speech for Trego’s graduation.  It comes after a year of strife and the board’s decision to move to a new model of education that recognizes the level of expertise and education that is present within our community.  The era of the single-classroom generalist teacher has passed.  We’ve recognized that our school will be better integrated into the community by accepting the 21st Century and hiring adjunct faculty to teach the specialized classes our students need as they move from 5th through 8th grades.  Call Shari at 882-4713 if you’re interested in being part of the team – you may have a great idea that hasn’t crossed our minds.

Fifty-nine years ago, I graduated from Trego’s eighth grade.  The graduation speaker was a forester, who seemed to be directing his remarks to Marvin Osler, explaining that Osler Brothers Mill wouldn’t be there for his career.  He was right – as I drive by the old mill site, I see a Koocanusa Brewery building and sign where the Osler brothers once supplied dimension lumber to the nation.

I graduated from a different building, with 3 classrooms down where the outside basketball hoops grow from the asphalt.  This school building came along three years later, as Trego became a boom town for the tunnel and railroad relocation projects. 

I think of the sawmills that are gone – Ksanka, Osler Brothers, Tobacco River, Stevens, Owens & Hurst – and how the timber industry powered the economy in the valley.   Now, the Economic Research Service classifies us as recreational, government dependent and retirement destinations for the economic drivers. Trego school remains.

A century ago, my mother was finishing the first grade at Trego.  I don’t know how much she learned, but I recall two stories.  The first was seeing a bear as she walked to school, and how her teacher didn’t believe her.  “There aren’t any bears in Trego.”  The second was a tale of technology – you see, toilet paper was a new technology in 1922, and that same teacher was teaching students to use that new technology.  One square per trip to the outhouse.  I don’t recall the teacher’s name – but I do recall the lesson that my mother didn’t accept.  I guess we could say that the teacher was preparing her students for the great covid toilet paper shortage of 2020.

A century ago, Trego’s main industry was transportation – specifically transporting logs to Eureka from the old dam on the Dickinson place.  Picture if you can – the gates of the dam blasted open with a dynamite charge, and a crew riding that small flood filled with logs for the 20 mile trip to Eureka.  The dam was last used around 1954 – that industry is gone.  The one-room log school of the twenties burned.  Trego school remains.

Marvin went on to become a teacher – he completed his master’s quite a while before I got mine.  Mom went on to nursing school in Spokane – along with the invasion of Guadalcanal, the Navy put a hospital in grass huts at Milne Bay in New Guinea.  Trego’s home industries were gone – but education pushed their way into future careers. 

The eighth grade is the first big step.  When public education began, it was the step into the working world.  Now, it’s the step into high school.  Congratulations.  You are Trego’s final graduate of the old model.  It was a good system, serving the purpose of preparing young people for the working world.  Still, we probably should have made the change from the 19th century model at least 20 years ago.

The students you’re leaving behind are going to enter a different world of education – and the first change will be learning from specialized teachers instead of generalist elementary teachers for fifth grade up.

Our first goal is that our eighth grade graduates will have the opportunity to bring a credit in algebra and a foreign language credit with them as they enter high school.  Not everyone will pass high school algebra in the eighth grade – but if you do, that credit travels with you.  We’re looking at filling that fifth block with a foreign language that can travel with you to high school.

The friends you leave can expect classes based on blocks and a trimester system.  Imagine for a moment, having a professional wildlife biologist teaching life science for thirteen weeks, then getting 13 weeks of Newtonian physics, followed by 13 weeks of earth science from a geologist.  The friends you leave behind will be moving into an exciting world that takes them further into the sciences.

Social studies – this is my area . . . I became a sociologist and demographer – but next year, the friends you leave behind will move into social studies as well as history.  Think for a moment of 13 weeks specializing in Montana history . . . of 13 weeks learning enough economics that you could CLEP the first college course . . . CLEP?  College Level Examination Program – your friends might not learn enough at Trego to take the test and get credit – but I’m betting at least half of them would.  Between the blocks and the trimesters, your friends will have experts preparing them for high school.  In college, the teachers would be called adjunct faculty – coming in to teach what they are really, really good at teaching – subjects that they love.

Math?  I spent 3 years with dear Mrs. Price – and may have moved ahead 3 months.  Picture a math program that includes the real world applications of surveying, of forestry, of statistics.  Math is power, math is fun – and next year, Trego’s students will be studying math in ways that use real world applications that make math fun and relevant.

English?  Three teachers over a year let us have a teacher who loves grammar, a teacher who loves teaching speech and drama, and another who teaches writers.

I haven’t even started on the afternoon half-blocks.  Picture a two-hour block taught by a professional artist on Monday, moving to Tuesday’s music class.  When I went to High School from Trego, band wasn’t an option for me – I hadn’t taken the required classes in Junior High.  We will be correcting that long-term omission.  Picture 13 weeks of learning electrical wiring, followed by another 13 weeks emphasizing solar energy.  I could go on – 3 trimesters and 5 blocks each week will let us offer fifteen artistic,  vocational and PE classes each year.  Who knows?  We may even rebuild the greenhouse and get some horticulture going.

The 21st Century perspective offers opportunities.  We can’t out-Eureka Eureka.  Eureka has a century of experience at developing outstanding athletic teams.  We can’t out-Fortine Fortine – they still have their first school building in operation.  Our first burned down, and our second was dismantled by Tommy and LeeRoy.  We’re moving on to be the best Trego we can be.

This summer will see some additions to the playground – centered around the idea of individual, life-long sports.  A combination frisbee golf and pitch and putt course will be set up – forms of golf that don’t require a lot of travel or expense (or break windows).  We’re looking at a cross-country ski course for our students – I’ll cheerfully admit that the ability to use cross-country skis kept me employed for six or seven years.  We’re talking about adding air-rifle training – all activities that qualify as PE and can be added to the afternoon half-blocks.

Fifty-nine years between us – and we’re both examples of the old model.  That’s OK – previous graduates have shown that you can go anywhere from here.  The world will provide you a living – you just have to work every day to collect it.  Grab it with both hands – you’re the last of the old model.  From your peer, over 50 years in the past, my heartfelt “Congratulations.”  I envy the things that you will see.


Did I Prevent a School Shooting?

It’s been years.  I really don’t know if I prevented a school shooting or not.  A guy walked into the school and I could see the print of his snubby – so I walked up close, smiled an engaging smile, and asked, “What are you packing there?”  His answer was “I didn’t come here to see you.”  When someone is wandering into your college with a sneaky little gun, that’s probably the most reassuring answer you can get.

My answer was to bring him into my office, pour a cup of coffee, and reply with, “Now, tell me what’s up.”  I think he really did come in to see me – the tale was a bit unusual.  His wife, a student, had been into an amateur attempt at sex conversion therapy with another student, “a cute young gay man.”  It had worked to the extent that she was pregnant – and the guy with the sneaky little gun had gone through a vasectomy on his first marriage.  I think he mostly wanted to be able to talk to someone – so I listened, unloaded his Brazilian made revolver, stashed the cartridges, listened some more, and, after a half-hour or so, returned his revolver and sent him home with an empty cylinder.  I may have prevented a school shooting – but probably not.  I think it was just a case of an overpowering problem and a need to find an audience who took him seriously.  To this day, I don’t remember where I stashed the cartridges – but I’m willing to bet someone was really surprised to find them when I moved on.  I know I didn’t send the shells back home with his wife.

My experience was with one man, emotionally charged, who wanted to be talked out of it, who really timed things so he could be defused.  We had no school shooting.  We had no police called.  I suspect that, even so, I’ve been closer to school violence with this one incident than most of the folks who are willing to tell us exactly what needs to be done.

I don’t have the answers.  I developed a personal answer in 1989, when I read of the Montreal Polytechnique Massacre

“On 6 December 1989, a man entered a mechanical engineering classroom at Montreal’s École Polytechnique armed with a semi-automatic weapon. After separating the women from the men, he opened fire on the women while screaming, “You are all feminists.” Fourteen young women were murdered, and 13 other people were wounded. The shooter then turned the gun on himself. In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life. The note contained a list of 19 “radical feminists” who he said would have been killed had he not run out of time.” 

My personal answer was simple enough: I will not leave my students. 

There was always a secure feeling in a class where I had a Marine enrolled – probably a bit more than sailors or army.  That was a security that elementary and secondary teachers never will have – that if worse came to worst in the classroom, I had reliable backup.  I don’t believe that a teacher exists who hasn’t looked at the world, and already determined what he or she will do if Hell comes through the classroom door. 

I’ve read of Sandy Hook – I have no doubt that Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach knew what they moved toward, and that their decisions were made long before Hell entered their school.  The wonderful thing is that such women lived – and that their actions and warnings protected others.  The sadness is that the only items they possessed to protect their students were their bodies.

Perhaps I do have a small suggestion – I believe that most teachers have thought about what they will have to do if their classroom is invaded.  Perhaps if every police officer spends a bit of time thinking about how to respond, when Hell enters the classroom they might be a bit more effective.


Trego’s 99-Year Lease

Part of Trego School’s playground was leased to the school in 1960 in return for water.  It makes a lot more sense if we go back in time and figure out what was going on in the fifties.

Electricity was new, and the closest telephone was at Osler Brothers sawmill, just north of Mud Creek.  The general land price at the time was $30 per acre . . . less if you weren’t looking at the more desirable downtown Trego locations.

From the documents, it looks like the school got electricity, drilled a well, added wiring and plumbing to the school, and then thought “a bigger playground would be nice.” The neighbors to the north, Bill and Madeline Opelt thought “Water would be nice.”  So a trade was made – in return for a 99 year lease for an acre of playground – relatively flat – the school would provide water for 99 years to the Opelt family, their heirs and assigns. 

Trego School is on a 4.64 acre (rectangular) parcel. The area the school leases (highlighted yellow) is about .9 acres. The playground is located behind the school and includes swings, a slide, monkey-bars and several large tires, painted and partially buried

Originally, the water went to the horse trough, not the house.  Bill had three elderly work horses that he called appaloosas – while they had the spots, they were definitely draft horses, and I didn’t realize the history that they represented for years – until I took a job at Chinook, near the Bear’s Paw Battlefield, and learned of the glorious military efforts of the Montana State militia at that location.  As near as I recall the story, the militia was tasked with running off the Nez Perce horse herd . . . and once they got them moving, drove them southeast to Billings or some such location, and sent them through the auction.  The Nez Perce mares were crossed with draft stallions, and provided work horses across Montana.  Bill may not have known the whole story, but he was right – his horses were descendents of the Nez Perce Appaloosas.

I could end the story there – Bill wasn’t interested in putting the water indoors.  He explained how he had a deep hole under his outhouse, with even deeper poles under each corner, and nobody could tip it over.  It wasn’t an argument that I would have used – but I was raised around flush toilets and kind of bigoted.  Bill later lost his vision – as I recall he took a fall after cataract surgery.  He was one of our last veterans of World War I.

It looks to me that on January 22, 2059, much of the school’s playground will go back to the assigns of the Opelts. 


College and Student Debt

I saw the graph below in an article on, obviously, college degrees and debt load, at ZeroHedge.

The article is worth a look – the author points out that “a significant percentage of the 48,000 students who enroll in history programs for their undergrad studies literally believe that they eventually will become a history professor. Less than half of those who enroll in history actually graduate with that degree after 6 years. None become history professors, while about 15% become elementary school teachers. The ambitious are undeterred, and ~1900 enroll in a masters program, specializing in an arcane field of history. Roughly 80% graduate with a masters in history after 3 years. Almost none will become history professors.

Rather than torture you by continuing with this exercise, we’ll cut to the chase. Nationwide, about 300 jobs open up each year for history professors at the university level. All will require a PhD and those who dedicated 10 to 12 years of their lives (and have $200,000 in student debt to prove it) will be the candidates for those jobs. The same dynamics apply to the other soft majors.”

I’m pretty sure I was one of those “other soft majors.” Frankly, a crushed vertebra gave me the push I needed to get into a graduate program, and I got back into college employment before I got back into grad school . . . yet I see fewer opportunities in the academy than existed in the 90’s.  I recall one fellow explaining how easy a Ph.D. was – his research, in history, had been handed to him by an old neighbor who had, as a personal obsession, spent his spare time hunting down poems written by Abraham Lincoln.  Some folks luck into easy research, good topics and publications.

In general, we tried to treat our grad students well – working to get them the assistantships that kept them going – qualifying them beautifully for a world that no longer exists.  Employment in the academy is now a game for administrators – and in a world full of adjunct faculty, the number of ranked and tenured faculty is dropping.  I’m pretty sure we were not doing all of our students  favors by getting them assistantships. offers some data on bachelor’s and graduate degrees. 

“Between 1980 and 2017, the share of adults with at least a four-year college degree doubled, from 17 percent to 34 percent. The Great Recession intensified the trend, since people often choose to return to school to burnish their résumé when finding jobs is tough. From 2010 to 2019, the percentage of people 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 6 percentage points, to 36 percent, where it sits today.

The more surprising part of the story is that the college degree is declining in status: postgraduate degrees are now where the real action is. The coveted B.A. from all but the most elite schools has become a yawn, a Honda Civic in a Tesla world. It’s not just metaphorical to say that a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree: about 13 percent of people aged 25 and older have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s in 1960. Master’s mania began to spread through the higher-education world in the later 1990s, but it picked up steam during the Great Recession, even more than the bachelor’s did. From 2000 to 2012, the number of M.A.s granted annually jumped 63 percent; bachelor’s degrees rose only 45 percent. In 2000, higher-ed institutions granted an already-impressive 457,000 master’s degrees; by last year, the number had grown to 839,000. And while the Ph.D. remains a much rarer prize, its numbers have also been setting records. Some 45,000 new doctoral degrees were awarded in 2000, a number that, by last year, had more than doubled, to 98,000.”

I calculated that it takes a population of 30,000 to create one job for a Ph.D. sociologist.  Years ago, I read how Imperial Japan, strapped for kamikaze pilots, sent draft notices to (among others) sociology and law students.  In a weird way, it makes sense – they had proven they were trainable, and they weren’t on solid career tracks. 

The world needs plumbers, mechanics, machinists, electricians.  Imperial Japan was correct – it takes a rich society to have jobs for Ph.D. sociologists. 


Trego School Enrollment Soars

Enrollment at Trego School continues to rise, in defiance of the historical trend. For the last few decades, school enrollment has been fairly steadily dropping. How low did enrollment actually get? The lowest official ANB (Average Number Belonging -i.e. the official state count of students) that I can find is seven, in the spring of the 2018-2019 school year. Enrollment actually continued to decline after that date, but didn’t make the official state count which is used to determine the district’s funding.

The most recent data, using the spring and fall ANB count provided by the state looks like this:

Time PeriodNumber of Students
Fall 201326
Spring 201428
Fall 201425
Spring 201527
Fall 201522
Spring 201622
Fall 201620
Spring 201720
Fall 201715
Spring 201813
Fall 201810
Spring 20197
Fall 201910
Spring 202014
Official ANB for Trego School, data from Montana Office of Public Instruction
In graph form the trend is somewhat clearer.

This data for this school year (2020-2021) isn’t available from the state yet, so the best way to find out about enrollment is to call the school and ask. Back in November, we reported the exciting news that enrollment was up to 23 students and we shared the following graph which incorporated that data.

Trego School enrollment as of November 2020

This January, enrollment reached 26.

Now, enrollment is up from January’s 26, to a total of 31 students. A 35% increase from November of 2020. This fall, Trego school optimistically began with three teachers. Now, with 31 students the average class size is slightly over 10. The school has been working to improve its enrollment, and has seen an amazing turn around. Even if we use the lowest official ANB number (which is decidedly higher than the lowest number the school reached), the school has more than quadrupled enrollment in the past two years.

Trego School enrollment, by year, as of late February, 2021. We’re going to have to consider changing our trend-line….

Well done, Trego School. Where will you go from here?


Trego School Continues Distance Learning

Trego School has adopted something of a wait-and-see approach to determining the date they will resume in-person learning.

In any school, the requirement that individuals that have been exposed must quarantine themselves for fourteen days can quickly make in-person learning impossible. Substitute teachers are always difficult to find, and finding one that is able to teach two weeks’ worth of classes on short notice is even more difficult. School districts with multiple staff members required to quarantine can quickly exhaust their “sub lists”.

In a smaller school, while there are fewer staff members and students to expose one another, there is also a greater degree of interaction. While in large school districts, kindergartners are seldom exposed to 8th graders, interaction among students is almost guaranteed in smaller schools.

It’s worth remembering, especially as favorite places are closed and much anticipated events are postponed and cancelled, that the school board is not responsible for mandating/enforcing quarantine. Rather, they have the difficult challenge of figuring out how to keep education continuing. For further information on who exactly is responsible, I’ll quote the county health department.

You can read the full text of the County Health Department’s COVID FAQ here.

Updates on the number of active cases of Corona Virus can be found from the county health department, and from the state. Monday’s update has a total of 67 active cases in North Lincoln County, with no current hospitalizations in the county. While the county does break the cases down by location and age, it doesn’t combine the two.. The county had 53 cases in the 0-19 range, but knowing it at the county level isn’t as good as knowing it at the school district level. The requirements of quarantine create a situation that mandates quick decisions. The available data? Never as good as we’d like it to be.

Community, Wildlife

Trego School Annual Fishing Field Trip

As the first chills of autumn hang in the air, and the salmon run, the older students of Trego School spend the day fishing with their teachers and support staff. While this year’s trip was marked by somewhat fewer salmon and smaller fish, students returned grinning and eager to show off their catch.

Photos by Lindy Ziemke-Smith

Field trips are a favorite for students and an opportunity to take the classroom outdoors. The salmon themselves offer a chance to talk about the way nutrients flow through ecosystems, the ecology of our streams, and of course the life cycle of the fish themselves. Of course, it’s also an opportunity for students that have never gone salmon snagging to experience it first-hand.

When the students returned, school board chair, Ken Smith, and school cook, Joe Puryer, cleaned the fish. Cheerful students sat around them, talking about their day and asking questions about the fish.

School Board Chair Ken Smith cleans fish and explains how to tell the difference between male and female salmon

It was, by all accounts, a very good trip, though many of the adults came back rather sodden from wading into the water to rescue tangled fishing lines.

Fish were carefully packaged and chilled before they were taken home.


Filters come to Trego School

Trego School’s Health and Safety Plan includes HEPA filters installed in air purifiers and in the heaters. While the filters for the heaters have not yet arrived (and are not expected to be needed soon, given current temperatures), the others are here.

HEPA filters specialize in filtering out the really small, things measured in microns (a micron, or micrometer, is a thousand times smaller than a millimeter). This means that they aren’t just going to pick up relatively large particles in the air such as dog hair.

These filters are effective at removing dust, pollen, and smoke particles from the air. This particular model will filter a 23 ft by 23 ft room in about 15 minutes.

The filters are plain, discrete, and nearly silent. The biggest risk seems to be that students and staff will wander over to the trashcan-like cylinder and have to redirect, a problem that should surely lessen with time.

While the immediate use of the filters is obvious, it will be interesting to see how well these filters help students with asthma, and allergies. Will they be pressed into service the next time our air is filled with smoke? Will we see less spread of other illnesses this year, as our schools check temperatures, wash hands, and spread out?

School starts on Wednesday, September 2nd. Enrollment information can be found on the school website.


Trego School Board Met Wednesday

The five-member board meets on the second Wednesday each month at 6 PM. However, in-person attendance is no longer necessary. On the agenda, which can be found prior to the meeting in the school or post office, there are instructions on how to attend the meeting via GoToMeeting. Visitors can join with their computer (headset recommended), dial in with their telephone, or join via the GoToMeeting App.

If you join, you’ll see the school board members and board clerk distributed at widely spaced tables. Across from it all is a large television that’s setup to interface with GoToMeeting and allow community members to attend board meetings without needing to be physically present.

During the meeting on Wednesday August 12th, the board discussed the Health and Safety Plan for the 20-21 School Year. The plan is available on the school website and includes details about temperature screening, HEPA filters, and disinfectants. Additionally, the plan addresses the “what if” scenarios for what the school will do in the event of a student or staff member becoming infected with COVID-19.

In the event of a community member becoming infected, the school will adjust recess and PE for social distancing, convert lunch to a “grab and go” eaten at spaced apart desks within the classroom. If a student or staff member becomes infected, the school will shift to distance learning for two weeks. Breakfast and lunch will be delivered to students’ homes via the school bus, and distance learning will use iPads and Chromebooks, avoiding the use of paper packets.

Additionally, the meeting included the Trustee Financial Summary Report and discussion of the 20-21 budget.

New business for the meeting included HVAC system filters and Air Purifiers, as well as a Distance Learning Parent/Student-School Contract.

Finally, Trego’s School Board has a vacant position. Community members interested in joining the school board should contact the school clerk.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, September 9th at 6PM. School starts the week before, on Wednesday, September 2nd.