The students at Lincoln School were contemplating a math problem one morning when the teacher turned to a boy sitting in front.
“Third grade,” she said. “What do you think?”
“That’s me!” said Hugh Brady, jumping up from his chair to show his calculations on the whiteboard.
This year Hugh, it happens, was the entire third grade at Lincoln School, the oldest ongoing one-room schoolhouse in the state. And he is fine with that, even though the school is looking for a few more students to balance next year’s roster. Right now there are 13.
“It’s better being in a little school,” said Hugh. “You have a lot of friends. At bigger schools you can’t go to every class and say hi.”
Tucked away in a corner of Marin County where dairy cows outnumber residents, Lincoln is a “well-kept secret,” says county School Superintendent Mary Jane Burke. It has remained much the same for more than 140 years, even as other county destinations became known for hiking and dining spots, enclaves of wealth and self-help culture.
There has been talk about merging the county’s three one-room schools, but Lincoln’s board, staff and parents are determined to keep it independent. The school, which made it through the dawn of two new centuries, is accustomed to weathering the ups and downs of education finance.
As a small “necessary” school – a designation that exists in 144 districts around the state – Lincoln receives flat-rate funding that doesn’t fluctuate depending on enrollment, which makes it that much harder to survive. Economy of scale, which helps bigger districts spread out costs, doesn’t work there.
“The state has tried to shut down the one-rooms,” said Sandy Doyle, who has been the school’s principal and teacher for the past 12 years. “Instead they flat-lined the budget, with the hope they will shut down. But that won’t happen on my watch.”
So each year, aside from classroom and administrative work, Doyle organizes fundraisers to cover most of the inevitable shortfall, which this last year was about $25,000, according to county figures. District reserves make up the rest.
The extra funds pay for science, music and physical education enrichment and computer equipment. The students at Lincoln, who at one time arrived on horseback, now all have laptops.
The students come from neighboring towns and nearby ranches, some commuting more than a half hour to the small building that stands alone amid the rolling, grass-covered hills. They can look in the history basket at the back of the school and see, along with a 1927 spelling test and a list of every teacher who worked there, photos of kids from long ago who look happy to be there.
It is still a place where students line up to shake hands with every visitor, get reminded to chew with their mouths shut and are sometimes asked to help explain lessons to younger students. It’s also a place where the teacher knows everyone’s parents, siblings and maybe grandparents, and can tell if the dog really ate the homework.
“I have the best memories of Lincoln School,” said Janeen Brady, Hugh’s mother, who also went to Lincoln. “I remember the wildflowers, the hikes, the Christmas plays. I’m still friends with almost everyone I went to school with.”
Brady, a paralegal who has served on the school board, has a kindergartener at Lincoln and plans to enroll her third child next year. She hopes Hugh’s class will grow – her own had two – but she is confident he’ll be well prepared for middle school. In the meantime, he is on sports teams where he meets other kids.
“In bigger schools, parents might fear a combination class,” said Doyle. “I used to question it too. But this is the ultimate combination class. Kids can teach, and those who need extra attention get it.”
The school’s size means that Doyle – who taught at larger schools, mostly private ones, before coming to Lincoln – knows where each student struggles and excels.
Each day she writes assignments on the whiteboard, with special sections for each grade or cluster of grades. When the second- through sixth-graders work on math problems, they do it in escalating levels of difficulty. One group works on simple addition, while others do more difficult equations.
The kindergarten kids work in a room at the back of the building called the Inner Sanctum with their own teacher, Karyn Mari Wester, an aide who tailors lessons to them. Her granddaughter is in the front room, half of the second grade.
The classes split up at various times to do their own grade-level reading or special projects. They all come together to celebrate California history, honor local veterans or to transform the school into colonial Williamsburg.
“It’s such a gift that this school exists,” said Wester. “They are taught with so much love and support.”
To the students, even those who once went to bigger schools, it all seems natural.
“People are amazingly friendly here,” said Liam Laureyns, a sixth-grader who started at a larger school where he could not work at his own pace and often found himself sitting alone.
Taking a break from a lesson to talk about why Lincoln is different, he compared the school to an atom and the students to electrons that will “jump to greater lengths” if put into light. “If given a chance, we will work harder to learn at a higher rate,” he said.
His only problem, he said, is that his classmates will be split up next year in middle school.
“I like how we get to learn things here,” said Emma Brenner, who transferred in fourth grade from a bigger school where she said she was bullied. She is class president, an office she won by running against her younger sister Isabelle. If she’s absent, Isabelle fills in.
“Lincoln is a place where the children learn,” she wrote in a recent poem about the school. “Lincoln is a place where bad feelings burn. I love this place, this place called Lincoln.”
Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.