The Alder School—a unique combination of history and community involvement

“I think Alder School is important because the school gives a parent hope that their child is happy, smart and that their child wants to take care of the community.”

Alder second-grader Andreena Bock wrote that sentence when prompted to write her thoughts about the school by second through fifth-grade teacher Teresa Murdoch. Bock’s simple statement explains why the small, rural school has been an integral part of the Ruby Valley since it was established over a century ago—1903.

Before 1903, children in the area attended elementary classes at the now-nonexistent Taylor School east of the current town, according to Jean Bluett. Bluett and her three siblings graduated from Alder school—her father even went to school there, entering first-grade in 1922. After teaching for 27 years in New Mexico, Bluett returned home to the Ruby Valley and continued as a teacher in Alder. Now retired, she serves as an aide at the school and “wears many hats.”

“I’m a teacher’s aide, a substitute, sometimes the substitute cook, librarian and more,” she said. “Sometimes, I’m even the handyman when small projects come up.”

The brick school building was constructed in 1903. The grey schoolhouse was moved from the small town of Ruby—located between Nevada City and Alder—in the 1930s and was placed next to the brick building, where it remains today, Bluett said.

When Bluett entered the first-grade in 1955, there were nearly 30 students; this year 11 kindergarteners through fifth-graders attend the school.

“The beauty of this little Alder school is that the small student population means every students gets one-on-one instruction,” Bluett said. “Everyone gets extra attention.”

The Smail family has been in the valley for over 100 years. Bluett credits the Smails with crafting the wrought iron sign, which incorporates the historic school bell that is positioned outside the school now. When Bluett was a student, the bell resided in the school belfry and pulling the rope to ring the bell was a special honor.

As a parent, Annaliese Smail said she is thankful the school feels “more like a family than an institution.”

“Though quaint and remote, the Alder School gives an extraordinary foundation for the children,” Smail said. “It provides kids with a unique approach to education.”

Bluett explains that unique approach combines rigorous academics with field trips and opportunities for the students to explore multiple activities—they recently completed an archery course and produce two musicals each year.

“The school is so supported because it combines so many things,” Bluett said, specifically citing the work of school cook Christina Fritts.

“When it’s their birthday, each student gets to choose what they want for lunch,” she said. “They get a special meal and a special birthday cake.”

The Alder School is one of two small, rural schools in Montana with a hot lunch program, Bluett said.

The school is supported by the Montana Small Schools Alliance (MSSA). Though Alder technically is not a one-room schoolhouse, enrollment and location define it as a small, rural school.

According to Dan Rask, executive director of the MSSA, Alder has consistently ranked above average in both reading and mathematics achievement testing—a testament to the teacher-to-student ratio, according to Bluett.

Charlie Gilman is an Alder graduate and now, a parent. Gilman currently has two children in the school—a first-grader and fifth-grader—and the family will add another Gilman to the kindergarten class roster next year.

“Alder is really important to us,” Gilman said. “There aren’t many of the little, little schools left anymore.”

The history of the school is closely tied to the history of the entire Alder community. Before the current community center was placed across the street, the school served as a community center and home base for the fire district. Gilman says there is a “nostalgia” factor that pulls families back to the Ruby Valley, which he says is one reason many alumni parents send their children to the school.

“It’s a close-knit community,” he said. “The kids learn how to get along with [other students] that aren’t necessarily the same age.”

Gilman thinks the atmosphere of the school has always developed camaraderie—another reason he wanted his children to attend elementary school at Alder.

“The Alder School is where I have fun and the place I have grown up in,” second-grader Wyatt Stender said. “I remember how much fun I had. My friends and I played tag here. My dad went to school here.”

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