Industrial Arts: In defense of small rural schools

Eva Murray: Worth every penny

Thu, 06/27/2013 - 10:45am

The elementary schools in Frankfort and Stockton Springs have just seen their last school year. Other small public schools all over Maine — and no doubt in every state — are closing as well, or being threatened with closure, as people whose only concern is the math cast a squinty eye at the bottom line.

In my opinion, that is often a mistake.

I have absolutely no right to toss out unsolicited sermons regarding the actions of any particular town or school board, not knowing any of the details, and I really don’t know the facts about those two little towns up Route 1 from here. On this subject, though, there are a few popular myths that I’d very much like to see busted. Among those are that small inevitably equals substandard, that extremely small doesn’t even really count as “a real school,” and that we should spend as little as we can on education (meaning that economy of scale trumps every other concern). There are a few persistent assumptions about small rural schools that are not borne out by evidence: that they are by definition impoverished, outdated, bleak, and marginal, and that the children of the larger towns and suburbs are always provided a better education. That might be the case in some circumstances, to be sure, but it is certainly not a given.

Summer is upon us, and neatly-pressed khaki-and-navy folks with presumptions a bit sparse on data will begin offering their observations soon. Here on Matinicus, we do occasionally have visitors suggest that our students must be ill-served by a one-room school, and that all of the facilities it lacks must result somehow in a deprived childhood. I will admit: we are sorely lacking on opportunities for team sports; no argument there. Very little else goes begging.

If you happened to stop by during the last few weeks of school at Matinicus Elementary, you might have found more adults than students in the bright, cheerful, single schoolroom. A lot of interesting things were going on over those last days of the year, and the three island students—a pair of siblings whose father and grandparents had attended the island school and a kindergartener whose father is employed on Matinicus—were enjoying a wealth of arts experiences, cultural exposures, professional staff support, high-tech learning and inter-island friendships.

Local artist Maury Colton came in a couple of times a week to teach an art class, in preparation for an art show this summer involving the work of both serious artists and Matinicus students (more on this project in an upcoming article). Elise Pelletier from the Island Institute came out and did a weaving project with the kids, among other things; Elise works to coordinate multi-island activities such as field trips, where students from several of Maine’s islands get the chance to meet each other, to learn together, and to cement long term friendships (as the parent of island kids, I can vouch for the importance of these inter-island connections) . A few days later the students trooped down to the harbor and climbed aboard the Sunbeam for yet another art project, this time with a visiting instructor. The Sunbeam, a 75-foot boat belonging to the Maine Seacoast Mission in Bar Harbor, has brought visiting artists, as well as medical professionals, musicians, and others with something to share (or to learn) to Maine outlying islands for generations.

Yvonne, the visiting guidance counselor, and Kathryn, the special education consulting teacher, both visited the school during that busy year-end time, and somehow, not surprisingly, cookies were involved. The island school also welcomed Nancy Hohmann, a French teacher from western Maine, who had been conducting language classes over the computer using Skype with the island’s only middle-schooler. Nancy was here to lead a three-day fun French-intensive session culminating in a student presentation for an open house, making a nice year-end event for the islanders in lieu of a graduation, there being no eighth-graders this year. We all went down to the school on the appointed evening and enjoyed a video the kids made using French vocabulary, listened to a French song or two, and ate the wonderful crepes and Madeleines that Emma, our 7th grader, and Nancy had made on the new school stove.

The Internet wasn’t only used for French this year, either. The students on the six Maine islands where there are active one and two-room schools — those being Monhegan, Isle au Haut, Cliff Island, Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro and Matinicus — regularly make use of videoconferencing equipment to join together for academics, for seasonal celebrations, for book groups and for meetings of the new inter-island student council. Their teachers meet for planning, structured peer support, and professional development opportunities. These are 21st-century one-room schools; no slates and benches here!

“How much is all this enrichment costing?” Actually, no more than the "3 Rs" would cost, and those costs are the same regardless of whether there are one or three or ten or 20 kids in the room, because that’s how it is with a one-room school. The oil bill does not go up and down with the number of students. The salary for one teacher does not go up and down with the number of students. Almost all of the costs are fixed, and the arithmetic of “per-pupil cost” is meaningless once you get down to a single classroom.

If you care, the French teacher’s expenses were paid for by a federal grant, the Internet costs the school nothing (because Matinicus Elementary is a real school, and part of the Maine School and Library Network just like any other,) the artists offer their time and talent as volunteers, and the stove was given to the school by the county Emergency Management Agency, which had it as surplus, thanks to the efforts of Emma, who wrote them a letter.

The loss of the school to this island, however, would be dramatic, and really would cause a terrible upheaval to this small town. We might very well cease to be a year-round community. School consolidation is impossible due to transportation realities. If there were no school, you can be sure that hardly any young families would seek employment here and few island native teens, once grown up, would stay here. Why does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. It seems to me it that matters. I cannot see any reason why a community should shrivel if it doesn’t have to. If anything terrible happens to the lobster fishery in future, we’ll be in big enough trouble; we do not need to bring trouble on ourselves.

A few will say: “So what? Let ‘em shrink! In fact, let ‘em go belly up. There’s nobody on that island but cranks and outlaws anyway!” That, my friend, is a myth, and a mean one. There are, among other good folks, children. It is also not your problem, truly, because it is not your money.

We acknowledge how a school is the heart of a community, how it provides identity as a year-round town, how it often provides services to the taxpayers beyond the education of a few children, and how school closures tend to be permanent. Sadly, people (dare I say “not from around here?”) still insist on asking about the “per-pupil cost.” It’s quite ridiculous. I’d better explain right now that Matinicus is not a wealthy island. This is not the land of large mansions called “cottages” occupied occasionally by the grandchildren of the old tycoons, and this town is not the beneficiary of the wealth of movie stars. On the other hand, we are also not a community receiving much public assistance. Mostly, we catch lobsters; a few of us fix phones or pound nails or sort the mail. Island residents pay for this school almost entirely by themselves. That is true. A widely-held myth is that the state pays for everything, and thus the taxpayers of Jackman and Portland and Upper Molunkus Stream are paying for the luxury of our tiny school. Not so; the state of Maine sends us very little.

Never give up.

Next time: What are we doing with all this art?

Eva Murray is a certified teacher and a property taxpayer, and has served as a school district bookkeeper and as an elected school board member.


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