Four paths to learning

From a one-room schoolhouse to today’s charter schools, all paths lead to education

Photo: Lars Wanberg The preserved one-room schoolhouse at Pembina County Museum in northeast North Dakota, connected to the State Historical Society. Note the globe suspended from the ceiling.

Photo: Lars Wanberg
The preserved one-room schoolhouse at Pembina County Museum in northeast North Dakota, connected to the State Historical Society. Note the globe suspended from the ceiling.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

Education in America developed historically along four pathways for choice in settings and concept—two along the lanes of heavy traffic (public and private schools), and two on the alternative routes of charter schools and home schooling.

Today, I think back on how alternative routes in education have developed in my lifetime over the past eight decades and the generational stories of my parents.

When my father (born in 1888) started first grade in 1894 in the rural community of Swift Falls, Minnesota, he attended a one-room schoolhouse. The school had been hand-built by the families living along the road of the adjoining farm of my Aunt Rodi, who had 11 children. Between my dad’s large family and those of my uncles, three families that were settled in the community filled the school.

They hired a young teacher for instruction of the “3 Rs”—Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic. My dad didn’t speak a word of English when he started school.

He finished his primary education within those walls. His view of the world was the globe that could be lowered during a geography lesson, as illustrated in the photo.

He went on to high school in Benson, Minn., Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, and served 45 years as a country pastor in the congregations of four churches, often preaching in Norwegian.

Today, we would identify his early educational experience as a charter school.

Charter schools are an exciting grass-roots movement that apply the educational standards of the state and districts they are in, yet direct innovative ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive in a lifetime of learning. Some of the philosophies of charter schools have roots in Scandinavian educational methods, especially the “Folk School.”

These folk schools in America were seeded along Nordic immigrant trails leading to California from ports of landing.

Reflecting on my family experience in heritage, I began exploring the origins of educational history in my current surroundings and discovered how the earliest roots of formal learning in California were just outside my door.

Each of the described four pathways are within five minutes from Santa Ynez, Calif., where I am staying temporarily with family for personal health care, following surgery at USC in LA.

Five minutes in a northerly direction from me is the famous Mission Santa Inés in Solvang. Spanish soldiers and missionaries in 1804 established the Mission with a dual purpose of colonizing settlements and Christianizing the sea-going Native Chumash Indians.

Santa Ynez as a town is named after Saint Agnes of Rome. The Mission Santa Inés was home to the very first learning institution in Alta California (“upper California” in Spanish, or everything above Baja), the oldest learning institution in what is now the state of California.

What is amazing to me is that the roots of this period of earliest learning are anchored in the land and still have a presence here. Spanish and Nordic architectures are still evident. Innovations and progressive methods are flourishing in the classrooms or through digital airways.

A few blocks away in downtown Solvang is the original site of the seventh Danish Folk School, which followed the immigrant trails westward from Chicago (and all died out during the great depression). Solvang is often promoted as the “Danish Capital of America,” as its architecture of a transposed Hans Christian Anderson village draws over 1.5 million tourists a year to its many attractions in food, fun, and festivals.

At the traffic light about a block away from where I’m staying, a public school (Santa Inez Valley High School) and a private school (Santa Inez Valley Christian Academy) are across the street from one another. The Academy offers a day school and a home schooling program.

Across from the high school is the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA that provides youth programs, leadership opportunities for teens, supportive after school programs for students, and even onsite infant and child care services for parents while participating in wellness activities.

Down the road in a neighborhood of homes is the Santa Inez Valley Charter School, which offers a showcase model of how parents operate an ideal elementary school for their children.

A short distance away is the Dunn International School, a college prep day and boarding school for high school and middle school students that includes about 25% students from other countries.

Education has come a long way since the one-room schoolhouse days—perhaps in a full circle. The globe that once was suspended from the ceiling for use on-demand is now as close as a touch screen on a smart phone or a laptop.

I’d like to think that my father’s childhood experience of gathering around a globe in a one-room schoolhouse, pointing out his country of origin and dreaming one day to return to visit relatives influenced me to want to do the same. After retirement, he spent six months in Nordfjord, Norway, reconnecting with kin and sometimes preaching in the Olden church.

I’m sure that my student Fulbright experience in Norway in 1957-58 came about from his motivation for me to travel the world. I later married a Norwegian-born Fulbright student, and we became a Fulbright family, with grandchildren who today are traveling the world.

The exchange experience in Norway shaped my life as a parent, a career educator, and lifelong learner.

The applied outcome in today’s world is that the four pathways for learning are like drop-down windows on a website, accessible to those who find excitement in connecting with heritage and joining expanding opportunities for global citizenship.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.