TAYLOR – Bailley Leibert walks into civics class and plops her sunflower-print backpack onto an empty table. The 15-year-old rummages for her notebook and a handful of colored pens.
Around her are enough tables and chairs to seat 10 students.
But today, and every day, there are nine empty seats. It’s just the ninth-grader and social studies teacher Ken Wright – an unintentional private lesson for the only freshman in the entire school.
At Loup County High School, Bailley is the sole member of the class of 2027, a lonely freshman class of her. The class was entirely empty for three years before she moved to the Sandhills village of Taylor this school year.
Near the Calamus Reservoir and nestled in the Sandhills, Loup County Public Schools is a district of just 89 kids – one of the smallest school districts in Nebraska. Twice, the tiny district has been in danger of closing, even needing to go to the Nebraska Legislature to keep its doors open.
Teachers and students say it feels like the school holds the community of Taylor and the 571 square-mile Loup County together. It’s the place to be during Friday night football games, and during the county fair held each summer.
It’s the town’s biggest employer. And against all odds in a county whose population continues to shrink – and despite the freshman class of Bailley – the school is growing.
As recently as 20 years ago, small country schools and one-room schoolhouses dotted rural Nebraska, said Jack Moles, executive director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.
In 2005, the Legislature implemented a major change, requiring districts to offer every grade. The move led to a wave of school consolidations, as the remaining country schools of Nebraska merged with neighbors or closed entirely, he said.
Now, there are 244 school districts in Nebraska – 201 of them have 1,000 students or fewer. Only five, like Loup County, have fewer than 100 students.
Running a school this small takes some improvising. At Loup County, Spanish is taught through Zoom and a projector screen, a remote learning tactic that small schools used for years before the pandemic, said principal Ken Sheets.
Sheets himself doubles as the bus driver most mornings, driving a yellow school bus down bumpy country roads to pick up the kids who don’t live in town.
Bright and early at 7 a.m., he scoops up kids from their farmhouses; from a truck idling on the side of the road; from the Sinclair gas station in Sargent. He waves at the cars passing by – most of the drivers he knows, some of them he doesn’t. All the while, the gaggle of kids filling the bus chatter about their homework, the cold weather and yesterday’s fifth-grade gossip.
The school has sports and band and choir – but only because Loup County combines with neighboring Sargent High School. Bailley and her friends make up the school’s first cheer team, possible only because there were enough interested girls at both high schools to form a cheerleading squad.
“It’s about gauging interest. It’s hard to do things for just one student,” Sheets said. “Sometimes, decisions have to be made. Do we need these girls to play sports, or do we need them to be on the dance team?”
For some parents, a school the size of Loup County can be a turn off, Sheets said. He’s had parents move their child into neighboring districts to avoid being one of a handful of students in their grade.
There’s no dance or theater classes. The school doesn’t have soccer or baseball teams. Foreign languages other than Spanish have to be taken virtually with pre-recorded lessons. High schoolers can take virtual college courses, but no Advanced Placement classes.
But other parents feel Loup County is a perfect fit, Sheets said. They want the small school experience, with small class sizes and a family atmosphere. To know they can call their teacher or principal and get a straight answer.
Bailley herself is no stranger to small schools. When she lived in Broken Bow – a district with about 800 kids – her school felt huge, she said. In Bartlett, she was one of 10 kids in her eighth grade class.
Moving to Taylor was the first time she was the only kid in her entire grade.
But to Bailley, there’s nothing lonely or strange about being in a grade on her own, even as a new kid at a new school. She kind of likes it, she said.
It means that, aside from civics, she gets to be in class with the older sophomores, and she likes the sophomores. She likes knowing everyone’s name. She likes that, after school, she and her new friends can walk across the street to her house.
She feels comfortable turning to any of her teachers for help, she said.
Studies have found that at small and rural schools, students find a greater sense of belonging, and teachers often feel better about their work. Small class sizes make individualized instruction easier. Students are also more likely to participate in a wide range of extracurricular activities, which is linked to academic success.
Students like Hector Estrada – the senior is on the football, wrestling and track teams. He’s learned welding through Future Farmers of America. He’s on the quiz bowl team, and the Future Business Leaders of America club.
“I got all these opportunities I never would have done if I was in a bigger place,” Estrada said. “I probably wouldn’t have played all three sports if I was at a bigger school. Here I get to do all three … here, they need the numbers.”
At Loup County, elementary school teachers oversee two grades in one classroom. High schoolers have the same teacher for each subject all four years. This practice, called looping, has been found to positively affect both academic and behavioral performance, according to a 2022 Brown University study.
English teacher Megan Helberg, the 2020 Nebraska Teacher of the Year, said she sees those benefits in her classroom, being able to celebrate her students’ growth throughout high school. It also means she has four years to get to know her students and their families, instead of just one.
“Of course I want you to learn hyperboles and how to use a semicolon,” Helberg said. “But more importantly, I want you to know that you are a part of this community, and we need you and you’re valued.”
Loup County has teetered on the edge of closure before. At one point, the high school population dropped below 35. State law required a public vote on whether to stay open or get absorbed by another district, a costly and time consuming process, Sheets said.
Twice, residents of the county overwhelmingly voted to keep the school open.
Small rural communities wither away once they no longer have a school, said Jeanne Surface, an educational leadership professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. As people move away, so do businesses. Loup County Public Schools is the social hub of Taylor, Sheets said. On Friday nights after football games, it can be hard to get people to go home, he said.
“The town would just turn into kind of a bedroom community,” Sheets said. “If they’re having to bus kids into Sargent or Burwell, that’s where the people are going to go.”
Last year, the district went to the Legislature lobbying to change the law.
A change would let the district and others like it “operate without the constant threat of closure looming over our heads … when a potential teacher asks about student enrollment, asks me how long (we’re) going to be open, I have to say, ‘I don’t know,’” Sheets testified before the Education Committee in 2022.
The Legislature agreed – now, the decision to consolidate schools is left to the school board, rather than a public vote.
In Loup County, staff feel a stronger sense of security, Helberg said.
“That rolls into job attraction and people attraction,” said Helberg. “If someone is unsure if the school is going to be open, that might deter families from moving here. But now, it’s like, OK, bring your families here, bring your children here. We’re ready.”
Helberg teaches in the same classroom where she once sat as a student, one of many teachers at the school who double as alumni.
Standing before her class on a Wednesday morning, she writes on the whiteboard: What are the perks of your community?
The 10th graders – and Bailley – ponder the question for a few minutes, scribbling their answers on notebook paper.
They love that there’s lots of land and not a lot of people. There’s no traffic. They love how close they are with their teachers, and how people come together and help each other, like the time the town helped Estrada’s family when his father was bedridden from long COVID.
Helberg wrote another question on the board: What is it lacking?
There’s no post office – two years ago, a building explosion that shook the town knocked the neighboring post office building out of commission. There’s no grocery store. They miss having an ice cream shop. Wish there was a soccer team.
There’s not enough housing, the class of teenagers said. Not enough people.
Some of Helberg’s students dream of bigger cities, working as graphic designers or cosmetologists or nurses. But a growing number see themselves moving back to Taylor, running the family ranch, becoming a police officer or starting their own business.
It’s a trend Helberg has noticed in the past few years, one backed up by the Nebraska Community Foundation’s annual youth survey. In 2020, 47% of rural students surveyed said they preferred to stay in small communities like their hometowns. Last year, that number grew to 64%. They point to jobs as the main reason why they’d live elsewhere.
“People are not dragging them back kicking and screaming, we are seeing more returners come willingly,” Helberg said. “We have more new families, new faces, new last names, which is a good thing. As a community as a whole, not just at the school, we are learning that we have to accept all types of newcomers. On a practical side, quite frankly, we need them. We need people in our school, we need people in our community.”
Civics class is Bailley’s last of the day.
It’s also her least favorite class – not because of the subject, but because she’s the only kid. No one to goof around with. No one else to answer hard questions.
Her teacher Ken Wright puts a slim Constitution pamphlet on her desk, and starts quizzing her on the amendments they reviewed the day before.
He’s taught a class of one before, but only in electives, never in a mandatory core class.
He starts to explain a citizen’s right to vote, and why Bailley’s vote matters when she turns 18. He recounts a school bond vote in another state that lost by a single vote.
“Your vote counts,” he says with a knock of his fist on the table.
The lone student in his class quietly listens.
She’s thinking past the last bell of the school day, when she’ll be able to hang out singing karaoke or doing makeup with her new friends from her new school in her new town.
The Seacrest Greater Nebraska reporter covers issues across the state of Nebraska. It is named in honor of philanthropist Rhonda Seacrest and her late husband James, who proudly led several Nebraska newspapers through Western Publishing for 40 years.