Old Depot Museum's one-room school program lets kids live the past

Marissa Ventrelli
The Ottawa Herald

No computers, no PA systems, no insulated lunch boxes to keep your pb&j cold - this is how kids experienced school in 1910, and it's how fourth-graders experience a day at the Old Depot Museum's one-room school program. 

Nine and ten-year-olds from all over the area have taken part in the program during the ten-plus years it's existed, and many still remember it to this day as one of their favorite field trips. Students are bussed to the Old Depot Museum at 8:30, given suspenders and pinafores to wear, and go about their day as a pupil at one of Franklin County's 75 one-room rural schools would over a century ago.

A chalkboard displays the students' schedule for the day at the one room school program at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa

Classes like spelling, arithmetic, and math are taught by museum volunteers, who are retired teachers themselves. One of them even attended one of the county's last one-room schools, Baxter School in Ottawa. One of the best things about the program is the students get to see just how different - and how similar - school was 110 years ago, says Museum Director Diana Staresinic-Deane. "When I went to school, my experience really wasn't that different from this - but for a lot of kids today, this is very, very different." The classroom where the kids spend most of their day is located on the top floor of the museum and is decorated to look just like a typical turn-of-the-century classroom would complete with a chalkboard and authentic desks taken from one-room schools around Kansas. Kids are given slates and chalk to write on and even get to use ink pens - not the plastic kind, but ones with actual ink, which many students say is their favorite part of the experience. At lunchtime, the kids grab their silver lunch pails stuffed with a handkerchief (no ice packs or Spiderman lunchboxes in 1910, obviously) and head outside to eat. After lunch, they play Edwardian-era games like drop the handkerchief. The name is deceptively boring, the kids from Garfield Elementary who were there the day I went had a blast running around and playing the game, which is sort of like duck-duck-goose. 

Fourth graders from Garfield Elementary play a game of drop the handkerchief during the one room school program at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa

Not only is the one-room school trip fun for the kids, but it also introduces many of them to everything the Old Depot Museum has to offer. "A lot of these kids have never been in this building before, so it's a really great opportunity for them to know they're welcome here, that this is their museum." The kids don't get a tour of the museum while they're there for the one-room school, but many come back with their parents to check out the other exhibits. 

The museum's one-room school program started in the mid-to-late 2000s as a way to preserve the history of Franklin County's rural schools, which educated tens of thousands of students for over a century. A grant for the project was underwritten by the American Eagle Outfitters distribution plant in Ottawa, which helped pay for supplies like slates, chalk, and the readers and handbooks each student gets. "We would love to find more sponsors because although the actual pieces of things aren't necessarily tremendously expensive, there's so much staff and volunteer time that goes into it," Staresinic-Deane said. Museum staff don't think there's a shortage of potential donors within the community, rather, they just don't think many people even know the one-room school program exists, which is a shame, said program coordinator Chuck Tilman, who says the program provides students with an experience they can't have in their own classroom. "For me, it's not only the actual hands-on experience, but it's also learning about what used to be. It's a way to say, 'I've lived history.' [The students] find out that the things they learn really aren't that different." Tilman said. "It's just a way that they can understand history beyond what they see in a textbook."