By Mark Rountree
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Wearing a floor-length white dress buttoned primly at the collar, schoolmarm Cynthia Shawley stood before her class of 20 students — boys on one side and girls on the other — and announced, with the clanging of a bell, that it was lunch time.
“Girls go first, boys, you know that,” Shawley said.
With that, the fourth-grade girls rose from their wooden desks and turned in unison toward their teacher, who nodded and said, “Girls, you may go.”
In a single-file line, the girls, many wearing bonnets and all wearing long dresses, trouped past the recitation benches and across the wooden plank floor into a cloak room, where they retrieved their lunches contained in a tin can.
An orderly procession of fourth-grade boys, dressed in knickers and suspenders, soon joined them on the lawn, where they ate lunch next to a cistern and drank water from paper cups they had made in class.
Welcome to 1899 and another day at Pleasant Valley School, a one-room living history learning center in southwest Stillwater.
Students at each of Stillwater’s six elementary schools participate each year, as do classes from Oklahoma City, Tulsa and many cities across the state. The students get a living history lesson in the oldest one-room school still in operation in Oklahoma.
The program runs for three months in fall and three months in spring. It was established for fourth-grade students, but since the state’s new common core curriculum requires Oklahoma history to be taught in third grade, the program now is geared for that grade. This year, third- and fourth-grade students in Stillwater take a field trip to Pleasant Valley.
Students take part in a spelling bee, practice proper penmanship, write with ink nibs, work arithmetic on individual slate boards and play games at recess like students did more than 100 years ago.
Pleasant Valley School Foundation president Lois Stern said the school’s first goal is to teach the history and geography of Oklahoma as outlined by state standards. Another goal is to make history come alive for students.
“I think the students come away with a real appreciation for Oklahoma history,” said Stern. “What do the children get out of this? I think one of the quotes from a student last year came from a little girl, who said this is wonderful because the boys had to be nice to the girls all day. They love dressing up.”
Teachers are provided with instruction manuals and suggested worksheets prior to bringing their class to Pleasant Valley. Teachers spend several days, even weeks, preparing their classes for the one-day instruction. Students likely will be quizzed on the material. Shawley said most students prepare for their visit and take pride in knowing the answers to questions about the Indian Territory, statehood and the history of Payne County.
Pleasant Valley School Foundation secretary-treasurer Gary Oberlender said the school operates totally from donations. The school’s most recent budget indicated that it had $6,000 in contributions and interest income that is offset by $6,000 in maintenance and operations expenses.
The school has a voluntary request fee of $5 per student, which is earmarked for teachers, supplies and other expenses.
With approximately 50 classes per year, and with approximately 20 students per class, that amounts to $5,000 of estimated yearly income. That is offset with $5,000 of school expenses.
The original schoolhouse opened in 1899, and classes were held there until 1943. The foundation was created in 1987 to restore, maintain and operate the one-room schoolhouse. The schoolhouse, restored to its original authenticity, reopened 18 months later. Since the building and grounds were restored, more than 20,000 students have participated in the program. In 1991, the school was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For more information about Pleasant Valley School, call 743-6000, or write to Pleasant Valley School Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 352, Stillwater, 74076.