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Small schools were the center of so many community activities

By Staff | May 22, 2020

High schools were once a source of pride for those communities or mere crossroads they served. There were no yellow school buses winding their way through the narrow valleys or along the roads with no guardrails and too many potholes.

Many schools served grades one through 12 in their five or six classrooms. One day the school would be a place to vote, the next night people could be socializing at a fundraising event held by the Future Farmers of America. On Friday of the same week, there might be a basketball game against a rival only three miles away along that unremarkable road.

It was West Virginia circa 1950 through 1970, a time when the state had life-sustaining coal mines yielding their “black gold” to other continents and bringing thousands of jobs to the families then living in small villages and camps all over southern, western and northern West Virginia.

The schools had to be close together because a significant number of students had to walk to their classes. Others rode in groups in the few automobiles that were off to school in the mornings.

Many schools had very small graduating classes. The seniors didn’t just forge cliques with those in the same grade, but had relationships with the younger students, who routinely joined them on the school’s athletic teams.

Towns often had one or two main streets and showed those who shopped there one or two grocery stores, a small department store, a service station or two, a restaurant full of home cooking, a handy hardware store, small clothing emporium, and little else that couldn’t be operated by a mom and pop whose first names or nicknames were known by nearly everybody.

The high schools were the hubs of the rural-living universe in West Virginia hollows and river-filled valleys.

Community spirit was brewed and then advanced at the high schools.

And then changes came all too quickly to that Norman Rockwell-like universe.

Jobs were lost in the mines. Other industrial jobs that paid out salaries that could afford the goods and services found in the mom and pop stores also began to fade, and then were gone altogether.

Examining the decades of much-loved high school basketball in the state will show the searcher that about 350 different high schools played at some level of the postseason that led to the state tournament.

The thousands of lost jobs meant large amounts of tax revenue were lost to local governments and the school systems. One of the answers politicians and state-wide school administrators found to the shrinking and belt-tightening budgets was to close some schools and consolidate others into areas that could be served by the now-seen school buses.

In 1982, the state implemented the Recht Decision that mandated an equity in school funding, called for the same instruction for all students, shuttered many schools whose costs were deemed to be too heavy and made extinct schools where the powers-that-were said were too hard to maintain.

In 1989, the School Building Authority rules were such that the state of West Virginia actually became the governing authority for state schools — virtually doing away with the intrinsic control once owned by the communities and the individual counties.

The rural areas saw their children and few financial holdings sent away from their towns. Consolidated school activities became more difficult to participate in because of the travel arrangements needed. Public schools didn’t have “activity buses” to get students home after practices or games.

Some counties that once had 10-12 tiny schools now have one school. Even large high schools like Charleston High, Stonewall Jackson, old Huntington High, Wheeling High and Clarksburg High have been abandoned the same as Ansted, Cowen, Capon Bridge, Wardensville, Mathias and hundreds of others.

Too many sources of tight-knit pride are no more. Some students are on buses for more than an hour before arriving at the school so far from their home.

Consolidation and school closures took away the “hearts” of crossroad communities . . . and lost jobs and pared government revenues won’t allow them to be seen again.