We live in the beautiful, quiet, dusty, muddy, hot and cold middle of nowhere Montana. I attended K-12 in the little town of Winifred, MT (pop. 200). The bus would pick us up every day at our mailbox for the 20-mile one-way trek, 10 of which was gravel. There were 15 kids in my class, which was a pretty good-sized class. Winifred is a typical Class C town where kids are chocked full of common sense, sports are king, and agriculture is the economic mainstay of the town. If you walk down the hallways at the school you can find senior class pictures dating all the way back to when the school was first opened. It is interesting to notice the natural rise and fall of class sizes through the years.
Class sizes are dropping
These variations are due to a number of factors, but there is no doubt that class sizes throughout Class C towns are becoming dangerously low. Schools are being forced to co-op with other nearby schools to find enough athletes to field sports teams. Many schools are in danger of closing their doors for lack of students.
Heartbeat of a community
These schools are the heart of any small town, and the day a school closes its doors is the day another small town dies. It’s not a lack of funding that is closing the doors on schools, it’s a lack of children to teach. Why is there a lack of children to teach, because there is a lack of families returning to these small towns. Many people, just like myself, feel very blessed to have been raised in a Class C town. So why aren’t more young families returning to raise their children in that idyllic environment?
Not enough money
The simplest answer is they can’t afford too. Like I mentioned before, agriculture constitutes a large share of jobs and the older generation simply can’t afford to pass the place on to the next generation. This is one of the fall-outs from the industrialized agricultural system, where margins are razor thin causing farmers and ranchers to do more with less, and work harder every year just to survive.
We are working very hard to change that. Affordable access to new technology is changing how we communicate, and our ability to get local products into the hands of local consumers will create a more resilient Montana.