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'The ideal educational setting:' Rural Luther School fighting to survive, thrive

Lowest enrollment in years as school choice laws take effect
Luther School sign
Posted at 3:01 PM, May 31, 2024

LUTHER, MT — It’s door-to-door service on the Luther school bus, or rather, school SUV these days.

With just eight students to pick up, Ann Ballard, the school's driver for the last 31 years, is happy to be driving a Ford Expedition on the dirt roads of western Carbon County instead of an actual bus.

But ask anyone associated with the Luther School, and they'll say those eight students - all girls, coincidentally - are prospering.

"This is the ideal educational setting," said Beth Kilcrease, the school's lone teacher. "When you go to school to become a teacher, this is the ideal they teach you. You get to come in and really connect with your families and students."

Luther School
Luther School may have the most beautiful setting of any school in Montana at the base of the Beartooth Mountains in western Carbon County.

Most days start the same, with the Pledge of Allegiance and several patriotic songs. Then Kilcrease goes to work: the eight students range from first to fifth grade, and she's responsible for all of them.

"I teach all the core subjects, so reading, math, writing, grammar, spelling," she said. "I also teach science, social studies, and P.E."

Like most schools, the students love that last one.

"My favorite one is kickball when it's nice out," said fifth grader Faith Stewart.

"We play in the field, when the cows aren’t out," added fifth grader Isla O'Shea.

Luther School classroom
Luther School's eight students all share one classroom and one teacher.

That’s just one of the things that make Luther unlike most schools.

"It’s a lot calmer, more organized," said Bo Parker, the newest Luther student.

"I like how much attention we get," Stewart said. "You learn more."

"We get to do a lot of fun things at this school that others don’t," Adelaide Sechler chimed in. "We go on a lot of field trips, and a lot of overnight field trips."

"We’ve traveled to Virginia City. We've gone to Butte. We've gone to Eastern Montana," said Janis Eckert, a longtime Luther teacher turned mentor. "We've seen Native American petroglyphs. We've even gone to Washington, D.C.

"There are so many things that are offered here."

Beth Kilcrease
Beth Kilcrease (left) is the only teacher on the Luther School staff this year, teaching all subjects to eight students between 1st and 5th grades.

Eckert taught at Luther for 27 years after transferring from the Jackson school, another former rural Carbon County outpost.

"(Jackson) closed in 1997," she said. "We just ran out of kids. When I started there were four rural schools: Boyd, Edgar, Luther and Jackson, and gradually each one faded away."

It’s a future Luther supporters are worried about. A few years ago, the school’s enrollment was over 40.

"At one point, we had to have a classroom downstairs because we had so many students," Ballard said, referencing the the second building that now serves as a cafeteria and small gym.

Luther historical picture
Luther School's enrollment was much higher just a few years ago, ballooning to as many as 42.

Ballard has spent more time at the school than just about anyone. She's a graduate and has held just about every job over her career, including stints as a cook, janitor and clerk, all while continuing to drive.

These days, she's also a teacher's aide and often has the schoolhouse’s original pre-Depression-era classroom all to herself during some lessons with the younger students.

"We haven’t ever cycled down quite this far," she said. "We used to have quite a few Red Lodge families come out here."

For whatever reason, they’re not here now. And a new law that takes effect July 1 could make it worse: it says students are allowed to attend any school district in Montana, and the student’s home district has to pay the tuition. Most believe it will hurt smaller schools.

"It sounds more like a consolidation bill than a school choice bill because of the funding," Eckert bemoaned. "I think doing that, they have taken away choice."

Luther School students
Luther 5th grader Bo Parker looks over her shoulder while doing a math problem on her desk. Parker transferred to Luther from a Red Lodge school in March 2024.

Parker, one of four fifth graders at the school, is happy she still had the choice to leave her Red Lodge school two months ago.

"At Red Lodge, I didn’t know a lot of stuff," she said. "I'm learning more here."

The women of Luther just want the chance to keep proving that true.

"It's why there are so many volunteers," said Luther School Board Chair Carrie Entenmann. "What I see here is really worth fighting for."

"I think if people knew the gem they have here, I think our population would grow," Kilcrease added. "But if there’s one student here, I’ll be there to teach them."

Luther School cafeteria
All eight of Luther's students are girls, though not by design. The public school accepts all students.