Resilience and grit: the Diagonal school

Skyler Stamps

DIAGONAL - Nestled in the corner of southwest Iowa lies the small town of Diagonal. With a population of 344 people, Diagonal still manages to have a lumberyard, repair shop, restaurant, gas station; just to name a few, and a school. It isn’t any ordinary school, however. The Diagonal Community School is the smallest public school in the state of Iowa with a K-12 enrollment of 108 students for the 2022-23 school year.

The Diagonal School opened its doors for the first time in 1893 after voters elected the school to be moved to the town rather than having various country schools. Diagonal produced their first graduates in 1896 with a class of six. The school added an addition in 1904 before voters passed a ballot in 1914 for a new brick school to be built. The brick schoolhouse, built in 1914 for $20,000, still stands today after 109 years and serves as the building for early childhood education and high school students attending Diagonal.

Having a title as the smallest public school in the state of Iowa puts a “target on your back” and not all people believe small schools are the right choice. Karleen Stephens worked at the Diagonal School for 44 total years while serving 22 of those years as the district’s superintendent. Stephens retired at the end of the fall 2022 semester. She said smaller schools sometimes draw more attention from the Iowa State Board of Education compared to larger schools.

“I think the focus can be a little more on small schools. Some people think bigger is better, but we don’t. When there is 1,000 kids in your class, I don’t know how you feel at home. And that’s the thing with Diagonal, they’re all of our kids,” Stephens said.

The Diagonal School has faced backlash and has been a target for consolidation and closing from the State Board of Education since the mid-1950s. You read that right. For over 70 years, the Diagonal School has been able to keep their doors open, despite backlash, to provide quality education to all students.

Zach Gunsolley is a 1998 graduate of Diagonal before attending Iowa State University to obtain a degree in civil engineering. Gunsolley is now the Western Region Field Engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation and a licensed financial professional.

“There is more to a school than just numbers. Not only is our graduation rate very high, but those students go on to be professionals in various fields, business owners and some go directly into the work force,” Gunsolley said.

Gunsolley stressed the term quality over quantity.

“If there is a place where they don’t fall through the cracks, it’s in Diagonal. There is literally no child left behind here,” Gunsolley said.

Not only is a school important for a small rural town, but also for the businesses within the community. Gina Warren owns and operates Diagonal Building Products on Main Street. Warren graduated Diagonal in 2005 and took over her dad’s business after obtaining a degree in kinesiology and health from Iowa State University. Warren mentioned the effect that schools in small communities have on local businesses.

“The school has a huge effect on local businesses. I mean you get more people in and out and you keep more people in your town that also want to do business with you,” Warren said.

Warren said one of the big reasons for wanting to come back to Diagonal and be a business owner is so she could support the school. With her doing business, it allows her to give back to the school by physical support, donations or just another business for the school to rely on.

In the late 1980s there was a rapid increase in school consolidations. Fast-forward to 2018-19, there was another peak in school consolidations in the state of Iowa. One of the schools targeted by the state board of education was the Diagonal School once again.

Shelly Bentley graduated from Diagonal in 1980 and pursued her degree in education before coming back to Diagonal where she has been teaching for the past 39 years. The state board of education had interesting perspectives regarding the school during her time as a student.

“Even when I was in high school in the ‘70s, they said, “Oh you will never graduate from Diagonal, it’s just too small,” Bentley said.

In a similar instance, Gunsolley was given a letter from his grandfather who served on the Diagonal School Board that was written to him from an Iowa State Board of Education member.

“In the letter, the board member stated, ‘Diagonal’s antiquated facilities need to be updated or you should consider closing your school or consolidating. These facilities cannot support a quality education for kids.’ That was 70 years ago. My point of telling this story is that do you know where he is at now? He’s dead,” Gunsolley said.

In 2018-19, the state was the closest they had been to shutting down the Diagonal School. The school did not have ADA accessibility, nor did they meet offer-and-teach standards set by the state. The ADA requirements to install an elevator, make ramps for the buildings, widen sidewalks and other changes were set to cost the school $800,000 to complete. The school had one year to complete this project, or it was goodbye to the Diagonal School.

“When the State Board of Education told us, ‘There is no way that little school can afford to make that building handicap accessible and find the funds to do so,’ I thought to myself, watch,” Stephens said.

Within the next eight months, the Diagonal School had found the $800,000 to fix all of the ADA requirements without having to cut the budget or take out a loan from the bank. From that point to the present, the Diagonal School has been off of the State Board of Education’s radar and operating as it has been for the past 100 years.

Iowa State Board of Education member Mike May was a part of the board when Diagonal was under heavy fire in 2018. May has served on the board since 2012 when governor at the time Terry Branstad appointed him as a member.

May said all schools in the state of Iowa are treated fairly and abide by the same rules.

“I don’t think that anybody goes after small schools or big schools, I think we’re just trying to provide kids with the best possible opportunities. If we think it’s important to offer and teach chemistry (for example), then they need to do that or they need to find some way for that instruction for those kids,” May said.

With May being in the discussion regarding ADA accessibility in 2018, he gave his insight on why the Diagonal School needed to renovate their buildings and why it has taken this long.

“I think this is really a difficult one… Our society has decided that we’re not going to limit ourselves to kids who are just physically fit and able to walk stairs... If a local community is not able to do that, I guess you could say, ‘well if they locally decide that they want to discriminate against a kid who doesn’t have the physical ability to amount the stairs and do those, I guess you could well, it’s their choice as a community.’ But I think as a society we have a broader choice on that,” May said.

After the repairs, the Diagonal school has been thriving on what they know how to do best. That begs the question, how has a school receiving this much backlash been able to keep their doors open for this long?

Here’s what each Diagonal representative had to say:

“Determination. Some of the little schools around here that are no longer here, they went along with the state knowing what’s best for their kids. We don’t. The parents want their kids educated and close to home. We are kind of unique in that we just don’t give up,” Stephens said.

“The community support for the school is what keeps us going. For our property taxes or something along those lines, our district citizens vote if a percent of that money should go to the school. That vote always passes with at least 70% of the votes. Without our community support, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” Bentley said.

“There is just such a lack of involvement in larger towns and cities because they feel like they’re just a number, whereas we feel like we are a valuable number. We are an asset, and we can really do something here. We can be impactful within our town,” Warren said.

“We aren’t surviving, we’re thriving. It’s perseverance, the attitude that we can do it. We have never had the attitude that someone will come rescue us. Diagonal knows that if we want it done, we are going to have to do it ourselves. You can tell that many rural towns across Iowa have given up on themselves; you don’t get that sentiment when you drive through Diagonal,” Gunsolley said.

Though the Diagonal School has been faced with battles for years, many years, it’s evident that the community and school will always put up a fight, no matter the circumstance. Whether it be pressure from the Iowa State Board of Education or other outside sources, the Diagonal School is determined to persevere and thrive while giving a quality education to their students. For now, and many years down the road, that small school situated in the small town in southwest Iowa will continue to keep its doors open for students, teachers and community members to enjoy.