Enrollment tripled at the Orton School this fall, but there is no risk of overcrowding. Three students now share the school's single classroom.

"Now I have someone to play with at recess," said Levi Tibbs, a fifth-grader who was the school's lone student last year.His playmates are sisters Emily Hansen, a second grader, and Sheri Davis, who is in sixth grade. Their attendance at the 1918 schoolhouse has helped stave off its extinction.

"We considered closing it, but if we did, then we'd have to pay to board those kids in town or we'd have to pay mileage for them to be driven to school and home every day," said county school Superintendent Jerry Kleinsasser.

And that trip is no quick jaunt. The nearest town is Fort Pierre, a long hour's drive down 50 miles of bumpy, winding road.

Locals call the area starkly beautiful. Outsiders call it desolate. Winters are harsh and snowy on the Dakota prairie, and the wind almost never stills.

"You can hear the coyotes fighting and jabbering all night long," said teacher Steve Pickner, 31, who lives with his dog in a rent-free mobile home on the school site.

Pickner is in his first year as a teacher - he graduated from the University of South Dakota in August, and he has his qualms.

"I'd rather teach 50 kids in one class than three in different grades," he said.

"That's 21 separate lessons I have to prepare each night, but it does keep me busy and helps pass the time out here."