Over the next few months, towns across Maine will vote on local school budgets, a process that can turn divisive as costs rise and older residents on fixed incomes feel the pinch. But in the small town of Medway, near Millinocket, there’s an effort underway to bring some of those elders into the classroom, and help them feel like they're a part of the school community.
“Medway is, I heard someone describe it as this little pocket of people in the middle of the woods,” says Medway Middle School Teacher Alyssa Dickinson.
Dickinson is deeply proud of her town, which sits at the confluence of the east and west branches of the Penobscot river.
“We're not really near anything,” Dickinson says. “We have to go at least a half hour to find a Walmart or anything like that. But we're a very close knit community. Everybody knows everybody.”
Dickinson says people in Medway support the schools, but when it comes time to vote on a budget, she says older residents can have a hard time understanding why education costs so much money.
“In our school in particular, we have an enrollment of 112. That's not a lot of kids,” Dickinson says. “So when you look at a budget, they're going, ‘Well, we're only educating 112 kids! What's costing all this money?’”
This disconnect isn't unique to Medway. Particularly in the past few years, local school budgets have skyrocketed in many Maine towns. According to the Maine Department of Education, local school taxes increased by 30 percent from 2005 to 2015.
When schools are forced to ask for more money from taxpayers, it can get ugly. In the past few years, some Maine towns have repeatedly voted down school budgets after contentious meetings.
Catharine Biddle, a University of Maine professor who studies rural education, says many schools haven’t really been focused on community outreach. She says over the past few decades, many have largely prioritized student achievement to comply with federal policies.
“Then the only interaction between the school and the older adult community becomes town meetings, where the budget is being discussed,” Biddle says. “And that reinforces the notion that people aren't invested. But there's also very little outreach that's being offered.”
That’s where Medway teacher Alyssa Dickinson saw an opportunity. Dickinson says after taking a class on rural education, she began to think about local history and how to connect students more closely with their community and its older residents.
After dozens of interviews, she designed a solution inside her classroom. She wanted her students to create their own town historical society, based in an old, dilapidated Medway church. To do it, she envisioned turning the class over to some of the towns older residents.
Now, every other week, about a half dozen Medway elders come into the middle school. Each "mentor" works with a group of students and digs into a different part of Medway's history. Residents Robert Pelkey and Glendora Coombs flip through old maps and news clippings. They tell the students about Medway's old one-room schoolhouses.
“I think it's good to remember the old days and where we came from. And maybe how difficult it was," says Robert Pelkey says, a Medway resident and one of the mentors.
"And I think the children get more out of it than their parents," Glendora Coombs, another mentor, adds. “They seem more interested in way back then.”
In just a few years, this historical society has slowly taken shape. Students say they have recorded interviews with elders and constructed a timeline of the town's history on a giant slab of timber and presented it all to the town. Eventually the goal is to renovate the town's old church and use it as a museum to showcase the history that students have uncovered.
“I want the historical society to keep going," says eighth grader Carson Bernier. "So when I'm older, people know why these were put there; the military, the schools, what that was all like. I don't want it all to just be forgotten.”
Dickinson says she's starting to see the community's perspective change, too. For one thing, Dickinson says this year's school budget passed easily, which isn't the norm in rural Maine.
She also points to what happened at Medway's latest town meeting. The town was asking for a lot of money – probably tens of thousands of dollars – to fix the town’s old church so that it could be used by students and the historical society. It was a big ask for Medway's older residents, and Dickinson was ready for it to get shot down.
"I thought, 'Oh no! They're going to say no!” recalls Dickinson. “But as people started talking, they weren't talking negatively. And they weren't talking about not spending money on the church.”
Instead, she says the residents just wanted to know how much renovation would cost. They wanted to see reports before they'd approve it. It was a conversation that Dickinson says she couldn't have imagined a few years ago.
“I can't say for sure that we affected that change, but I feel like we brought that conversation to the forefront, than if we had just let it sit," Dickinson says."And I think having kids involved makes them see that it's so important to preserve it.”
Talks about budgets and local taxes will never be easy. But Dickinson hopes that her students' historical society can keep changing the conversation, and keep connecting with older residents, for at least another year.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
This story was originally published Feb. 21, 2018 at 4:21 p.m. ET.