Volume III, No. 3, Spring 1976
by Teresa Reed and Ellen Massey
Photography by Stephen Ludwig
"Only fifty-four students in the whole high school today?"
"That's right," proudly answered the students and faculty of Metz High School.
"But don't you miss out on lots of things?"
"No, we don't see it that way. We think we have many advantages big schools lack. We like it small."
We talked to each of the nine teachers and administrators of Metz High School and spent the day with the fifty-four students getting acquainted and going to classes. Everyone kept repeating, "We like it small."
In our studying about the rural people of Southern Missouri we keep rediscovering what the people themselves have always recognized, that the newer ways of doing things are not always better. As the world changes, sometimes the independent rural people choose not to change. In our research about the decline of the rural high schools, we have found still another example of this tendency. Quite a few communities still believing in the worth of small schools have proudly maintained high schools of less than a hundred students in an age that seems to insist that bigness counts. Numbers, efficiency, economy, variety--all these highly desirable qualities demand big schools. There Js no place for small ones. This is what we also believed until we visited Metz.
Metz and other small high schools like it have put the emphasis on individuals, student participation and quality teaching. Their students are not numbers, but are Cheryl and Janet, Dave and Kenneth. Their efficiency is measured by how successfully Steve is included in several activities and how much Mike learns from his special project. They do not consider whether it is economically feasible to have a class with three people, but consider the need of those three students to have that class. They do not fret that their curriculum is limited, so much as they are concerned that all students participate and achieve in something since the numbers are not there to discourage and defeat them.
As our day at Metz progressed, we kept asking everyone why they liked their small school. Senior Larry Rowland visited with us at lunch 'downtown' in the cafe where students are allowed to go for lunch if they wish. "I don't think I'd like any more people than we have in our school. I feel we get quality education the way we are. We get more attention from teachers than if there were more students."
Another senior Dave Adams has attended Metz for four years. "Before I came here I attended Rich Hill. It's a little bigger, but I like it here better. The people are friendly. All the senior guys are really good friends and we stick together."
Superintendent Kenneth Hays calls himself a "small school man." He said, "Here the school is the hub of social gathering of the community. Everything generates around it. Since ours is in such a small community, everything we do affects our entire area. Parents are different in a rural area. They're more concerned about their children. I can know each of my children and their parents personally which makes counseling easier. Smaller numbers in the school make the students more aware and honest and much less likely to go against the ways of society. Everyone participates in something."
"The students have a great sense of belonging here," Jerry Sparks, principal added. "We have 98% attendance and dropouts almost never happen. Students drop out because they feel they don't belong. Everyone feels he belongs here."
We thought that surely the teachers would not like teaching in such a small school where salaries are considerably less than metropolitan areas, and even less than nearby Nevada. "We are limited in what we can do," Larry Harver, shop teacher admitted. "So students use their own materials and work individually on their own projects. But I like it well. I hardly have twenty-five students all day with seven in my biggest class of woodworking."
Coach Edwin Tourtillott said, "Students are so nice to get along with. There are no problems of long hair or drugs. The kids are motivated and will break their backs to do things the best they can. That is the attitude of the community. It is worth a lot to have a good day without worrying about problems of larger schools."
The school has had no problem getting qualified teachers, even during times of teacher shortages. Many teachers remain at the school several years resulting in a very small turnover. They need to be qualified in more than one subject, teaching five different class preparations and one study hall. Mr. Hays said, "Teachers have a different feeling about the work because of the smaller numbers. They work together as a team and have personal contact with one another and students. They become part of the community." Larry Harvey agreed, "Everyone is easy to get along with."
Metz is a small rural village of 120 people eighteen miles north of Nevada in southwest Missouri, located in the midst of good farming country. The population is very stable. There are no industries in the village, only a bank, a store and cafe on either side of what was once a prosperous main street. Now the once elegant bandstand is gradually rotting in the center of the cross roads of an almost deserted business center. Good roads and cars have taken people to larger centers to trade, causing most of the small businesses to close, so that main street resembles a ghost town.
But the people of the Metz community did not allow this to happen to their high school, which still hosts as much activity as the year their building was first built. Its history began like most of the rural schools in southern, rural Missouri. Taking advantage of the consolidation laws, the school districts of Metz township consolidated in 1916. However, it was the 1922-23 school year before Metz offered all four years of high school, and 1927 before they built their building.
When many small rural high schools closed in the '40's and '50's Metz School District in 1940 expanded its territory, began busing in its students, and brought to the campus all its' outlying elementary schools. In 1952 the patrons strengthened their committment to keep their school by voting bonds to build new elementary classrooms and a regulation sized gym.
Most people today think of high school populations in hundreds or thousands of students, not realizing that many small schools, like Metz, are still operating. In Vernon County alone there are four other rural high schools not much larger than Metz. These schools are not relics of the past teaching outmoded subjects to their students, but modern schools meeting present day stiff state classification requirements with qualified and energetic teachers. Mr. Sparks said that Metz will meet Class AA requirements next year. Triple A is the highest classification in the state. "Smaller schools can meet these requirements by increasing their curriculum and adding staff and facilities. It used to be the state legislated numbers in schools forcing many small schools to close. Now, if we meet the requirements, we can continue no matter our size."
The smallness was the main impression that struck all of us the day we spent there. Mr. Hays greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of the campus introducing us to all the teachers. "Make them welcome," he said to each.
And after meeting juniors Cheryl Allison and Janet Kennedy who introduced us to the entire student body before the first bell, we very soon felt at ease. We were amazed at the warmth and friendship with which we were accepted. As we investigated the building, we were surprised that there were no cliques, just everyone talking together. Before the day was over we all knew everyone and felt like we'd known them always.
The building itself was not so small. It had three floors, an undersized gymnasium and small locker rooms in the basement which was used as indoor play area for elementary children, classrooms and offices on the first floor and classrooms on the third floor. The building showed its almost 50 years of use in the worn steps and hallway floors. Chairs in some rooms were the old style bolted to the floor in rigid rows reminiscent of school rooms of the 1930's. The new gymnasium-auditorium built on to the newer elementary classrooms, was modern in every detail.
The feeling of smallness was more noticeable as the day progressed. One of the first duties in first hour class was to take a lunch count, for it had to be exact. The five of us were added to the count the day we visited. Then when we learned that the lunch hour was actually a whole hour long and students could go to the cafe on Main Street, two of us accompanied a group there. The count being off by two caused the cooks some consternation. It was quickly handled by students going back for seconds as long as the food lasted.
Each class was very small. Study hall one period had two students. There were two students in typing. The largest class that day, excepting band, had twelve students.
"Small classes give time for personal attention," Mr. Sparks said. "There is a closeness of teachers and students which creates a good atmosphere and a feeling of belonging. Everyone is important and missed when they are gone. The teacher knows each student well."
Debbie Hodge, English teacher, who went to a large St. Louis County suburban high school herself, commented, "Everyone gets to do something here. There is a good atmosphere. Everyone knows everybody. If a student has a problem we know the background. Teachers all work together, passing the word to study hall teachers which ones need help and which kids to have study what."
Because of the fewer students, teachers need not be so strict. After going to town for lunch with Larry we were a little late to his next class because we had gotten carried away with our conversation. We were afraid that he might get into trouble with his band teacher because in our school if anyone is tardy he has to have a pass or accept a tardy mark, three of which would count as an absence. But Larry just walked in and sat down. Not a word was said.
Mrs. Rozanne Sparks is the band and music director at Metz. It seemed remarkable in a small school, to have a band of forty members. "The band has done well, she said. "We get high ratings because of our active program. I'm dependent on the students I have to make my program work for there are no others in the school. I teach fundamentals of music (which is partly a guitar class), band and a theory class. I also teach a chorus class but not too many participate."
After lunch some of us decided to roam around to see what we might discover. Classes of every kind imaginable were going on. Art, bookkeeping, chemistry, math, home economics and shop were being taught in different rooms. The great variety of classes in such a small school was surprising. If only one person wants a course that is not enough to justify having it. But if two or three people want it, that's enough for a class at Metz.
The last hour of the day there was a pep assembly in the gym. The spirit for their basketball team was amazing. At the pep assembly everyone was yelling and chanting along with the cheerleaders. Then I knew everything Mr. Hays had told us about total participation was really true because there he was, right in the middle of all his students, yelling like crazy.
Basketball for both boys and girls is the most important activity in the school. Almost everyone is on the teams. Metz has always had girls' teams. When the high school plays other schools the girls' team plays first, then the boys play. The whole community turns out for the games. Even when seventh and eighth grade teams play their games at school during school time, the senior high dismisses to watch the game.
To illustrate the total involvement of students and their interest in basketball Mrs. Sparks said, "When we had our recent tournament, participating students got in free. The team doesn't pay, of course, the cheerleaders and pep club and the pep band also got in free. In the entire high school that left only four students who had to pay."
Teachers and students all agreed there were no discipline problems. Mr. Hays summed up the teachers' opinions, "They're just the best bunch of kids in the whole world. Last Halloween not one window was marked with soap. There is no vandalism from our community and I never have to suspend any children. Some are mischievous, but not destructively mean. We don't worry about cops in the halls or safety control in the gym. With close personal contact the students learn respect and there is a great deal of peer control.
Since discipline is not a problem, students have more freedom. Each morning and afternoon they have a longer between period break to get cokes and visit in the halls. The open lunch period causes no problem and an occasional tardy is overlooked for the student usually has a very legitimate reason.
With 100% backing of the community, .which does not intend to lose its school, Metz is holding on to the good qualities of early small rural high schools while expanding its curriculum, improving its instruction and quietly going about its business of meeting the educational needs of its students. Mr. Hays is convinced that "Metz is not too small because it is giving all children all types of needs. All their needs are being met by us."
We knew that it would be natural for everyone to defend the school to outsiders, so we kept asking and searching for some disadvantages of such a small school. We thought surely that finances would be a problem. "Inflation is the biggest problem," Mr. Sparks said, "for it hurts small schools worse than larger ones. Our tax base remains the same while all our expenses go up. But the community will pass any levies that are reasonable and in order to keep the school going, the patrons will go quite a way. They are not wealthy, but have adequate finances. At present the tax base is $3.53--much lower than most larger schools."
Then perhaps lack of variety in the curriculum and outside activities is a disadvantage, we thought. By offering courses on alternate years, or once every four years, Metz offers more than sixty units with about forty-five offering each year. Cooperating with Nevada for special education and participating in the area vocational school there gives twenty-six more choices to Metz students.
In addition Metz cooperates with the four other Vernon County high schools to afford the services of a speech therapist. These small rural schools are more and more cooperating and sharing specialized personnel and services rather than joining together into one bigger school unit.
But there are obviously some drawbacks. Coach Tourtillott said that Metz doesn't offer as much variety in athletics as he'd like to see. The school has baseball, volleyball and track in addition to basketball, but it does not offer football or tennis.
Mr. Hays admitted that "with two or three in a class we may lack the motivating power of competition. Perhaps we teachers become too engrossed in students, but I'd rather do that than not get to know them. I can tell when they walk in if they've had trouble at home."
Mr. Sparks, who teaches four periods of math in addition to being principal, realizes he is handicapped trying to do two jobs. "We lack curriculum variety and are limited on funds for equipment. Light scheduling with only one section of each class makes many conflicts." But he added, "The advantages and disadvantages balance out. I like it here. This is home."
About 40% of the twelve to fifteen students that graduate each year go to colleges in the area. Mr. Hays said, "They do as well as graduates from any other school. Very few drop out of college."
Since there is nothing in the community for the graduates except farming, most of the young people must leave after graduation. We asked if they were prepared to meet the stiff competition they will have after everyone being leaders and important in Metz. "It is an adjustment for them. But the concern shown them here and the feeling of being needed and important stays with them," the teachers explained. "Students have gained a self-image here during their early years which should help them through the rest of their lives."
We students are constantly griping about things at our school. Surely the students at Metz see some disadvantages. Kenneth Liles is a senior and has attended Metz School all his life. "If I could change one thing, I think I would make the school have more kids. In a small school everyone knows what you do. There are no secrets. But I am close to my friends here. I plan on being a farmer and settling near Metz."
Larry has also gone to Metz all twelve years. When pressed for some disadvantages he finally said, "Some of the teachers could change their methods. I believe different ways of teaching would be better for some students."
After school the entire student population of Metz School, including the elementary children climbed on the four waiting buses to go home. No one had to ride more than forty minutes. We stayed a few minutes later, hating to leave our new friends and being mighty tempted to stay for the ball game, but our responsibilities and the long drive home necessitated our leaving. As we drove through the rich prairie country leaving Metz High School behind us, we met two of the buses already unloading their last few students. They jumped off the buses and hurried in their homes to do their farm chores and eat supper before returning to school with their whole family for the important game that night with Walker High School.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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