Tammy and Kelly Rundle, of Moline, Ill., produced a film that examines the societal effects of one-room schoolhouses.  Photos special to the Daily Times Herald
Tammy and Kelly Rundle, of Moline, Ill., produced a film that examines the societal effects of one-room schoolhouses.  Photos special to the Daily Times Herald
Monday, August 20, 2012

Emmy-nominated filmmaker Kelly Rundle has a message for Carroll-area kids who reluctantly flocked back to school last week:

Remember your academic roots.

“I want them to realize that the one-room schoolhouses are the foundation of American education,” said Rundle, who runs an independent media company with his wife, Tammy, out of their Moline, Ill., home. “But like anything, we’re always looking for the connections between history, and today and there are many parallels.”

Their most recent feature-length documentary “Country School: One Room — One Nation” chronicles the rise and fall of the one-room schoolhouse system, what it considers one of the most formidable forces in shaping American culture for young immigrants and natives.

It’s the third film the Rundles have written, shot and produced together for Fourth Wall Films, the start-up company they launched more than 25 years ago.

And now it also presents their first shot to snag a regional Emmy Award. The 72-minute film will compete against two other selections for a Mid-America Emmy in the Historical Documentary category.

Results will be announced in September in Kansas City.

“We are thrilled to be nominated,” Rundle said over the phone. “That sounds like a cliché but just to be nominated is great because it’s our first time even trying,”

To produce their documentary, the Rundles secured grants from humanitarian societies in three different states where the story is focused — Iowa, Wisconsin and Kansas.

All told, the Rundles visited more than 70 different one-room schoolhouses in more than five states — adding Nebraska and Missouri to that list — where old students recalled the poverty and squalid sanitation conditions that plagued the one-room schoolhouse, but looked back fondly on their education.

And they offer a teachable moment, too, Rundle said. Although those problems are not exactly replicated in the 21st century, they are recreated in a modern context as many urban schools face scarce resources today, he said.

The film opens with a shot of a one-room schoolhouse in Boone — a stoic building that stands among hissing winds and swaying cornfields — one of three Iowa schoolhouses featured throughout the documentary.

That footage crystallized one of the movie’s main themes: the state of many one-room schoolhouses today as forgotten pieces of the history.

Carroll historians have restored and maintained one such schoolhouse that dates to the 1880s on the east side of Graham Park for children and other residents to visit.  

Ultimately, the film is a call to action — a message for communities to actively restore and preserve the one-room schoolhouse, Rundle said.

It is also a platform that highlights Iowa’s early commitment to public education. Iowa led the country with more one-room schoolhouses than any other state, almost 13,000 by the year 1900 with as many as 100 in a single county. Today, it still houses the most existing one-room schools.

Although Rundle said it’s not common practice in the film industry to release specific figures, “Country School” was shot on what he called a very low budget that pales in comparison to the money and production work pumped into its competitors.

In that sense, more visibility from being recognized for the award is a victory in itself, Rundle said.

“We operate so far under the radar, for the most part, that anything that helps to introduce new people to our project is a very good thing and this certainly has done that,” he said.

In Iowa, where both Rundles have spent significant time living and shooting other films, including their award-winning first film about the Villisca mass murder mystery, the Rundles hope to boost their presence.

“Country School” has screened more than 60 times from coast to coast since it premiered in 2010 at the State Historical Building in Des Moines.  

The Rundles donate their film to groups who use public showings to raise money for restoration projects and welcome any other request to screen the movie.