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The one room schoolhouse: Part 2

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    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Pauline Kibler rings the bell inside the foyer of the Albrightsville School, the one-room schoolhouse of her childhood.
Published October 09. 2009 05:00PM

Pauline Dotter Kibler and Roy Christman don't know each other. They've never met. They aren't related, and they live in communities 18 miles apart.

But the two have something in common. They're kindred spirits bonded by a special passion that led them to save the one-room schoolhouses of their youth.

What Kibler and Christman did was to defy the odds. As one-room schools were torn down by the thousands all across America, the Kibler and Christman worked to save two historic but threatened schools that were once the focal points of their local communities.

For them, the project was a neighborhood effort which took on a strongly personal dimension.

"I went there for my first six years," says Christman, of Lehighton, speaking of his experience as a student at the rustic 1898 Kibler School, 6495 Pohopoco Drive in Towamensing Township. Christman was enrolled at the school in 1950. 'The Kibler' was built at a cost of $460 and, prior to relocation, stood at the corner of Pohopoco Drive and Penn Forest Road when Christman attended class. It was named for the owner of a sawmill who donated land for the school to be built.

The building is special for Christman because it's fortified with memories.

"I remember taking nature walks with Mrs. Brown," says Christman. "She'd teach us things like not to be afraid of snakes and what the different plants were."

When Christman attended the school, it housed about 33 students in grades one through eight.

"With eight grades in one room, your class might have been just two or three students, or maybe even one," he explains.

Christman embraced his studies at the Kibler, and then entered Palmerton High School where he did well. In fact, he and three former Kibler students were named National Merit Scholarship finalists.

When the township built a new elementary school in 1955, the Kibler School was closed and its role changed. For a time it served as a shed for farm produce. Then, in 1996, the school's owner donated it to the Lehigh Gap Historical Society and it was moved to its present location the same year. The Kibler School was lovingly restored by the Kibler School Committee and the Palmerton Area Historical Society. It now stands tall and proud on land provided by Christman, situated just a few miles from the original location.

"It was a three-year project," recalls Christman. He regularly welcomes tour groups and individuals who want to take a peek at the past. Visitors marvel at sight of the potbelly stove and old oak desks, both trademarks in the history of education in America.

The successful school restoration project in Towamensing Township echoed a similar effort in Albrightsville just five years earlier.

There, Pauline Kibler (not related to the sawmill owner who lent his name to the Kibler School) and others saw a need to preserve their local one-room schoolhouse. Kibler was afraid it would be torn down. It had closed its doors in 1957 and the old school bell stood silent. The place was beginning to show signs of neglect.

Like Christman, Kibler had fond memories of her years spent inside the large schoolroom. She had attended class at the Albrightsville School in pre-electricity days and spent many hours under the tutelage of instructors Clinton Getz and Miss Grace Hoffman. She remembers how Hoffman welcomed youngsters to her home when school was not in session.

"She was always good to her students. She'd invite us to her parents' house in Weissport for a weekend," explains Kibler, 85.

A committee was formed to save the school, with volunteers meeting regularly at Kibler's house. A fund drive raised $20,000 to $25,000 to preserve the Kidder Township structure. No detail was overlooked in preservation, which included scraping paint from the old tongue-in-groove wainscoting. The original school books were discovered in a crawl space in the attic and are now on display at the rear of the classroom. The place now looks the same as it did during the 1920s

Inside, virtually everything the eye can see dates back to the earliest years. Among the original pieces are the teacher's desk, blackboards, woodwork and pupils' desks, even though virtually all of the desks had been sold to local residents many years earlier.

"People had bought them over the years, but they donated them back to the school," notes Kibler.

The school even has its original boys and girls outhouses to the rear of the structure.

While Kidder and Towamensing townships can boast of success stories in preserving priceless one-room schoolhouses, other locations haven't been so fortunate.

The vast majority of one-room schools in the U. S. have either been torn down or converted to other uses. Some serve as houses; others are now garages. Some collapsed or were razed and only the foundation remains.

Even though the schools once served as a vital center of the rural community - hosting town meetings and picnics - the remaining, deteriorating buildings now pose problems for local communities.

In a tight economy, funds for restoration and maintenance are not easy to come by. In addition, those who try to preserve the schools are faced with the question of what to do once it's finished. A museum? A meeting hall? A clubhouse? Who will pay for the upkeep?

Those questions are being asked now in Mahoning Township, near Lehighton. There, a volunteer fire company must decide its best course of action in dealing with the 107-year-old New Mahoning School. The structure is threatened due to the collapse of a beam supporting the main floor.

The decisions are difficult. The answers, hard to come by.

Christman says some townships have been able to adopt a special zoning ordinance to allow consideration for historical resources. That kind of allowance can help preservation efforts.

Christman says the ordinance might be looked at as an historic overlay.

"You amend your zoning ordinance so that these buildings are listed. We're the only township in Carbon County that has one right now," explains Christman, referring to Towamensing. The ordinance makes sense for townships because, he says, "in a rural area, your historical resources are more spread out than they are in a town."

Those considerations might provide impetus for saving the old schoolhouses, he says.

At Pohopoco Drive, the ongoing restoration and maintenance project is supported by a group called 101 Friends of Kibler School. Each member pays dues of $15 a year. Those memberships help to defray ongoing expenses.

Kibler and Christman know that a community has within its power the ability to save a one-room school. And in doing so, the story of organized education in America can be told in a tangible way to future generations.

Christman points out that even though one-room schoolhouses were special in many ways, they had some downsides.

"Art or music weren't a big part of the curriculum," he says. Plus, "you might have had the same teacher for eight years." This could pose a problem in the rare case of a student who might not have taken a liking to his or her teacher.

There was another challenge at the one-room schoolhouse - teachers weren't necessarily equipped to handle students with learning disabilities, or those severely challenged. In addition, the one-room schoolhouses were not handicapped-accessible.

Today's school system is much better equipped to accommodate students at all levels and situations. Still, those who attended the old-time room of knowledge say that nothing today can match the personal attention given to young minds inside the one-room schoolhouse.

It was a time when students respected their teachers, teachers 'adopted' their students - and, together, they mastered the three Rs and a whole lot more.

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