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One-room schoolhouses dotted Central Illinois
Covell School teacher Esther Parrish and her students are seen here on May 27, 1960, the last day in their school’s history. Dale School also closed that day, marking the end of one-room schoolhouses in McLean County. (Pantagraph file photo)

BLOOMINGTON - The end of an era came on May 27, 1960, when the last two remaining one-room schoolhouses in McLean County shuttered their doors for good. | From Our Past page

According to pioneer accounts, the first school in McLean County was held in the log cabin of John Dawson, one of the first settlers to Blooming Grove, south of present-day Bloomington.

In 1827 or 1828, Blooming Grove settlers built the first schoolhouse, though at this time most schools were subscription-based, with neighboring families supporting an itinerant - and often incompetent - teacher or schoolmaster.

The proliferation of one-room schools throughout Illinois dates to the 1855 free school law, which gave townships the ability to establish school districts with elected boards, which in turn had the power to levy taxes.

In early 1883, there were an astounding 253 schoolhouses in McLean County outside Bloomington-Normal. Before consolidation, most rural schoolchildren walked to school, meaning the typical district encompassed no more than a few square miles. It's also easy to forget that before the mechanization of the Corn Belt, there were more school-age children living in the countryside. In addition, not only were there more farmers, but their families were, on average, larger than today's.

The one-room school provided identity and reinforcement of secular community life. They represented the often-forgotten strength and vitality of rural communities, and once they closed, many places were never the same.

Dale Township's schools

McLean County's last remaining schoolhouses, Dale and Covell, were in Dale Township southwest of Bloomington. Dale is one of the least-populated townships in McLean County, with tiny Shirley and even tinier Covell as the only two settlements of note. Even so, throughout much of its history, there were seven schools in Dale Township. In 1879, these seven schoolhouses boasted a combined enrollment of 278.

Dale School was built shortly after the district was organized in 1855. "Originally there were two rows of handmade benches and desks about eight feet long," noted William B. Brigham in his 1951 history of McLean County schools. "An aisle down the center kept the boys on the west side and the girls on the east side." The schoolhouse was rebuilt in the 1890s, and then "remodeled and modernized" in 1932.

Covell School, which historically had larger enrollments than Dale, had a much more tumultuous history. Its location was the subject of much litigation, with some area residents wanting the school in Covell proper, while others preferred a site less than a mile southwest of the hamlet. The latter site eventually won out, so although the school was named Covell, it was located well outside its limits.

Many one-room schools carried fanciful names, and examples in McLean County included Swamp Institute School (Allin Township); Mosquito Grove (Danvers Township); Frog Pond (Downs Township); Frog Alley (Money Creek Township); Tile Factory (Funks Grove Township); Rabbit Hill (Mount Hope Township); and Sheepeye (Old Town Township).

Era of consolidation

School consolidation began in earnest after World War II, spurred by a combination of factors, including the slow but steady decline in the rural population, as well as the increasing number of county and township "hard" roads that could better accommodate school buses. In December 1947, the McLean County Survey Committee proposed cutting the number of districts from 219 to 36. The group, while acknowledging the sensitivity surrounding the issue of school closures, stressed the need to operate "educational facilities" with ever-greater efficiency and economy.

Consolidation continued apace for decades. Today, there are 10 school districts in McLean County. This number includes Bloomington District 87 and Normal-based Unit 5, as well as Prairie Central (which includes Chenoa, Fairbury and other communities) and El-Paso-Gridley, two districts extending well beyond the county's borders.

In August 1959, the state superintendent of schools announced that Covell and Dale were "nonoperative" schools, meaning they were no longer eligible for state aid. At issue was that both schools fell below the minimum average daily attendance, which was set at 15 students.

The following month, the two schools were annexed into Stanford Community Consolidated District 404 (now part of Olympia Community Unit District 16), though they remained open until the following spring. Both Covell and Dale were then sold and converted into single-family homes.

Dale School was razed in 2004, though the Old House Society salvaged some architectural elements, such as beams, flooring and beadboard. A new home now stands on the school lot, which abuts the western edge of the Heartland Hills subdivision.

Meanwhile, old Covell School still stands, though there are plans to tear it down within the next several years and build a replacement elsewhere on the site.

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